Mission possible 

Life after near-death for Missoula 3:16

If recent history were any indication, and if one man’s personal crusade succeeded, the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission would certainly be on the brink of closing the doors of its Toole Ave. location. Last October, three teenagers brutally assaulted a man along the railroad tracks near the 3:16, and “The fingers pointed at us,” says Deb Lester, who manages the Mission with her husband. “If we weren’t here,” she says the argument goes, “it wouldn’t have happened.”

Shortly after the attack, landlord Caras Rentals asked the Mission, at 506B Toole Ave., to close its doors by the end of October. At the last minute, a month-to-month lease was reinstated. But this April brought further harbingers of doom. The City-County Health Department asked the Lesters to stop serving food, which they weren’t licensed to do. Typically, the Mission serves close to 2,000 meals each month. And since the fifth of April, a neighbor, Robert Weston, has aggressively pursued the Mission’s closure with a neighborhood petition, a letter and calls to the landlord asking for a lease termination, and comments to City Council. Weston collected at least 48 signatures in support of Caras Rentals terminating 3:16’s lease.

Though neighbor opposition to the 3:16 remains high, recently the Mission got a bit of bright news. On Friday, the Health Department met with the Lesters, and now expects to grant the Mission a license to serve prepared food as soon as the couple turns in an application. Secondly, lawyers had moved out of a building next door—also managed by Caras Rentals—and the Lesters learned that they are on the short list to rent the additional space. Landlord Jim Caras will not describe the conditions under which the Lesters’ lease may be renewed or extended—“That’s between the Lesters and myself”—but he says, “I think that they’ve cleaned up.” Lastly, the opposition, personified by Weston, appears tired, and he has little recourse left. Instead of closing shop and seeking a new location, the Missoula 3:16 may be setting down roots and expanding.

The Lesters have survived instability before. On Dec. 1, 2000, they secured the lease to 506B Toole Ave. after the non-denominational Mission, supported by individual donations and local churches, had been booted from the Warehouse Mall. “Our clientele had to come in the front door, go up the stairs and share a bathroom with everybody else,” says Lester. “That didn’t go over very well.” Now, they have leased 506B Toole for a little over three years.

That’s three years too many as far as Weston is concerned.

“[The Lesters] have fooled people into thinking there’s a need for it,” he says of the Mission.

Weston, who mows the boulevard across the street and waters and seeds the lawn at his own expense, has been the most vocal opponent of the Mission and its clientele. Now, he admits that he might need a vacation from his cause. “I can’t do the politicking when I’m this upset,” he says. Weston is suspicious of the Mission clientele’s motives and needs. He believes that the well-being of the neighborhood rests entirely on his shoulders. He believes the city does not want to help him—in fact, it doesn’t have jurisdiction. He believes his activities against the Mission have made him a target of its clientele.

A man named Hillbilly dumped his poop-can on a corner across the street from Weston’s house, he says.

“I think he wanted me to see him do that,” says Weston.

He doesn’t really believe the people need 3:16’s services.

“The needy already have services available,” he says. Weston, who was homeless himself between 1979 and 1980, knows it’s a hard and unsympathetic line. “I’m sorry,” he says. He just prefers the job the Poverello has done.

On April 5, Weston presented a speech and petition to City Council. Seeing a private property issue, the Council recommended Weston and the Lesters communicate directly.

Despite the recommendation from Council, Weston says he never intended to talk with the Lesters.

“He’s never come over and said, ‘Look, I have some grief here, would you address it,’” says Lester.

So in early April, Lester walked across the street and introduced herself to Weston instead. She said he asked for 24-hour surveillance. If they were able to offer that, she asked, would he be satisfied?

“He was at a loss for words,” says Lester.

Weston is at a loss, period.

“The hardest thing,” he says, “is everybody in this neighborhood is shy, introverted and afraid.” No one else, he says, will publicly oppose the Mission.

Now, contrary to his hopes, the Mission might soon be even more entrenched in the neighborhood. By next week, Lester says she hopes that she, her husband and Caras will discuss expanding the Mission’s lease to include 506A.

“As soon as the law offices moved out,” says Weston, “I was afraid of that possibility.”

The Mission isn’t attracting hobos into the neighborhood, says Lester, but serving needy people who already live in the area and transients disembarking from the nearby railyard.

She takes a matter-of-fact view of her clientele. “The homeless were here before us,” she says, “and they’ll continue to be here.” kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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