Camp cleanup challenges

Roughly two weeks before laborers began hauling refuse, including human waste, makeshift houses and beer cans, from a homeless encampment near the Reserve Street bridge, Poverello Center staffers began conducting outreach. The staffers' message was simple: There are options other than living on the banks of the Clark Fork, and resources available.

"For some, there is a positive outcome," says Poverello Center Executive Director Eran Fowler Pehan. "For others, it's just relocation."

Law enforcement and social service workers agree that relocation—and the Reserve Street encampment's potentially costly return—is almost inevitable. This year's cleanup will cost the state $17,000.

"I have no illusion that people won't move back in there," says Missoula County Sheriff's Department Capt. Rob Taylor.

Those most likely to return are individuals that social workers call "chronically homeless," a demographic that typically steers clear of services, often because of the sobriety mandates they impose. The Pov, for instance, requires sobriety as a condition of residency.

Rough estimates hold that approximately 11 percent of any given homeless population is chronically homeless. Though not representative of the working poor and single mothers that compose the vast majority of people living on the streets, in cars and area encampments, the chronically homeless often suffer from addiction problems and, as such, consume 50 percent or more of all resources dedicated to helping the houseless.

Acutely aware of those numbers, Missoula officials last year set to work identifying strategies to address that imbalance as part of a 10-year plan to end area homelessness altogether. Titled "Reaching Home," the document highlights the efforts and successes achieved by other communities grappling with similar problems.

Specifically, the plan notes that in 2005 Seattle launched a "wet-housing project," which provides long-term accommodations for alcoholics not deemed a safety risk. Participants in that project receive counseling. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the program resulted in an almost 33-percent decrease in alcohol use among participants. It also saved roughly $2,500 per month per resident—costs that were previously incurred in jails, hospitals and detox facilities.

Missoula is in the process of hiring a 10-year plan coordinator to guide the city's homelessness eradication efforts. As it does, Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener, who co-chairs a working group guiding the plan, sees programs like Seattle's as a smart way to go. "It's worth investing resources in folks who are hardest to house," he says.

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