In search of quarters 

Missoula leaders voice support for new homeless shelter

In the wake of last week's release of a homeless needs assessment, Missoula Mayor John Engen says he supports construction of a new Poverello Center in downtown Missoula, a project he asked the homeless shelter's management to put on hold 10 months ago.

"We've been talking with the Pov about what a place looks like that makes some sense for them," Engen says. "We've been talking with them about some sites. We've been talking about size and shape and all that stuff, what might work and what might not work."

Engen says his support of a new Pov is contingent on the nonprofit's willingness to move ahead with a significantly scaled-down version of the plan it introduced last fall, which called for erecting a $7 million facility on Spruce Street, around the corner from the Pov's current location on Ryman Street.

"We've been talking about a much smaller budget," he says, "but a budget we think is a lot more realistic."

click to enlarge Missoula’s Poverello Center, erected in 1919, is frequently overcrowded, sleeping dozens on the floor during the winter months. Original plumbing and electrical systems are failing, says Interim Director Eran Fowler. “The state of the building is atrocious,” she says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Missoula’s Poverello Center, erected in 1919, is frequently overcrowded, sleeping dozens on the floor during the winter months. Original plumbing and electrical systems are failing, says Interim Director Eran Fowler. “The state of the building is atrocious,” she says.

Missoula's homeless population grew by 17.5 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition. Amid the contentious discussion about how best to help homeless people, Missoula's Poverello Center has served as a flashpoint. The issue flared up last April when the Pov announced plans to build a new shelter down the street from its dilapidated and often overcrowded Ryman Street digs. Dozens of business owners expressed concern, saying they'd had enough of serial inebriates asking for handouts and spooking shoppers. Building a new Pov downtown, some said, would lure more undesirable behavior and exacerbate an already tough business climate.

Engen asked the Pov to hold off on expansion until stakeholders could assess whether Missoula has—because of services like the Pov—become a magnet for the down and out. City and county officials paid $15,087 to hire former University of Montana social work professor Maxine Jacobson to answer that question and evaluate Missoula's housing assistance programs as a whole.

In November, Jacobson's firm, PRAXIS—Building Knowledge for Action, polled 240 area homeless people, asking questions like, "How long has it been since you last had permanent housing?" and "Why did you come to Missoula?"

Last week, PRAXIS rolled out its report, titled "Homelessness and Housing Instability in Missoula." One finding that's garnering significant interest, especially as stakeholders reengage in discussions about a Pov expansion, centers on whether Missoula is indeed suffering from the "build it and they will come" phenomenon.

The survey results appear to debunk that theory. The plurality of respondents—43 percent—said they owned or rented in Missoula immediately prior to becoming homeless.

"One of the most profound survey findings challenges the idea that building more services in Missoula will bring more homeless people to the city to use them," the report states. "The findings suggest otherwise. It appears that, for at least those included in the survey, people come to Missoula and stay here primarily because of what has already been built—a supportive, cohesive, welcoming community of friendly, good people. They also come because of family and friends who live here. Although services are mentioned, on the whole, these are an afterthought."

Missoula's Downtown Business Improvement District Director of Operations Rod Austin says retailers are paying attention to Jacobson's data. He points to the finding that serial inebriates constitute only about 11 percent of the overall homeless population.

"Businesses get kind of bad-mouthed a little bit for their harsh approach to what I'll call 'the incorrigibles,'" Austin says. "A lot of folks associate that with what happens generally at the Pov. Normally, the Pov client is not the person that's causing the problems downtown. Even though those folks do use their services, the vast majority of the people that the Pov serves are not [incorrigibles]."

Austin says if business interests see Missoula working to continue curbing serial inebriates' bad behavior they'll likely be more amenable to supporting—and even help fund—a new Pov.

"If we're able to address that issue effectively, an awful lot of the other fears, I think, would be tempered quite a bit," Austin says. "You may see some business interests, I think, trying to rally somewhat and see if we can't help the situation."

City law enforcement last summer hired a full-time officer to police downtown streets. Police Chief Mark Muir has said he hopes to do that again this year.

Poverello Center Interim Director Eran Fowler says it's a relief to see Missoula coalescing around the idea of a new shelter.

"We all have to come together," Fowler says. "That's the only way that it's been effective and impactful in other communities is when it's an across-the-board comprehensive approach, with all interested parties."

Meanwhile, the mayor aims to continue working with the Pov and community stakeholders in the coming weeks to help identify a viable property for a larger Poverello Center.

"I believe it's an essential community asset," Engen says. "I feel a responsibility to be a steward of that asset."

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