“Even though it was winter, it was a light time because of the Workfare program and the availability of low-income housing,” DeGarmo says. “A single person could draw assistance if they worked a certain number of hours volunteering.”
But Workfare fell victim to the anti-public assistance axe in 1993 after years of Reaganomics, DeGarmo notes, ushering in an age of welfare reform, with the most recent component being a law created two years ago that prohibits single Montana residents from receiving food stamps for more than three months out of every three years.
“There is an incredible number of people we feed,” DeGarmo explains, stating that the Pov served nearly 100,000 meals in 1998. “During the day, anyone can eat, and if they’re intoxicated we give them a plate to go. We’re also finding that more people need the evening meal too. We’ve tried to turn people away, but we don’t really.”
In fact, the Poverello Center is serving twice as many meals a day as they did even two years ago, which DeGarmo believes is a direct result of welfare reform. Cynthia Roney, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank, agrees.
“We’re beginning to see the results of the changes in food stamps,” she says. “We’ve had an increase in the number of families we serve and families are frequently coming in every month.”
DeGarmo says the skyrocketing rents in Missoula have forced many people into the streets, resulting in the unprecedented need for shelter at the Pov, which has 75 beds for men, women and children. The length of stay varies with each individual, DeGarmo notes, but the Pov regularly provides longer-term transitional housing in addition to shelter for one or two nights.
“If you’re working, it can take months to save up enough money to get your own place, and we try to hold the people who stay here accountable by meeting with them three times a week,” he says. “A lot of them have medical issues that take a while to resolve. They need a place to heal.”
For its entire 25 year history, the Pov has operated on a combination of private donations and government funding, with 20,000 volunteer work-hours contributed last year alone. Local businesses are especially generous with surplus food, DeGarmo adds, and he expects the services the Pov provides to continue unabated into the next millennium.
“Years ago, I came down here to do some maintenance work,” DeGarmo recalls. “Yet here I am today. It’s just a good place to be, and I’ve become a part of the good work being done.”