The current urban camping and homelessness occurring in Missoula is an emergency that calls for both short-term crisis management measures and more long-term solutions to assure Missoula remains a community that works for everyone. Today Mike Nugent, candidate for Mayor, has submitted several referrals for consideration by the Missoula City Council to create both immediate relief and sustainable solutions.
Missoula has experienced a significant increase in the number of individuals experiencing houselessness, resulting in the emergence of numerous encampments across the city. Recognizing the situation's urgency, Nugent has formulated a multi-faceted approach that combines compassion, collaboration, and evidence-based practices to tackle this complex issue. One of the key factors, if not the leading one, contributing to the rise of the unhoused population across Montana is the cost of housing, an issue that is particularly acute in Missoula.
The unhoused in Missoula do not fit a single profile, as is often the narrative; rather many are employed, have families, and had a bad break or were living paycheck to paycheck and the rent went up. As Missoula has this conversation as a community, it is crucial to acknowledge that no two situations are the same, and the majority of those struggling likely do not fit the profile many have developed internally.
For too long, inaction around this crisis has shifted the conversation to the extremes, pitting well-intentioned residents with differing views and understandings of the situation against each other. It does not have to be this way. It is possible to find solutions that are compassionate and focus on propping up the successes we are already having as a community while assuring our parks and trails stay accessible for all. It is possible to want the best for our unhoused while having reasonable concerns about needles being found in parks and staff spending hundreds of hours on clean-ups only to have the issue re-established in hours. Telling people to leave with nowhere to go will not solve the issues we face the way many hope, which is why we must address this both in the short term and in the long term. We can help those who want help and provide guidance and structure for those who choose not to accept the help of our community.
Short Term Crisis Management
Our most pressing need is to identify safe and healthy spaces for people to freely exist while assuring our parks and trails remain open and safe for all users. Taking the steps outlined below, we can create safe opportunities for our unhoused to work on transitioning out of houselessness, while giving our public safety community the ability to enforce life, health, and safety regulations.
- Identify one or two publicly owned parcels or areas to establish a nightly sleeping area. Those experiencing homelessness could come and sleep for evening hours but would need to clear the space for cleaning and site maintenance during daytime hours, similar to how the Poverello Center operates. This plan leverages the knowledge gained from the previously authorized campsite to create a safe, secure, and sanitary location where services can be more efficiently and effectively provided in a controlled environment. Additionally, a controlled environment will provide the City with greater information about those experiencing homelessness, thereby allowing for data-driven solutions with measurable outcomes including through the Missoula Coordinated Entry System. By utilizing available resources and implementing innovative models, Missoula can provide safe and dignified temporary housing options for those in need.
- Direct staff to build a plan around this temporary approach and return to the council with a cost and identified areas for consideration and decision-making.
- Ask staff to deliver an update on other options considered and not implemented to this point as well as their costs, such as re-opening the Johnson Street Emergency Shelter.
- Continue to support and enhance the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a public-private partnership that has proven successful in assisting individuals to utilize available resources to work their way out of homelessness and into permanent housing situations. Staff help residents to obtain IDs, documents, and potentially care aimed at assisting in working towards permanent housing and employment.
- Housing First Approach: a "Housing First" strategy, which prioritizes creating permanent housing opportunities for individuals experiencing homelessness is a critical first step. By securing stable housing for vulnerable individuals, Missoula can create a foundation for their overall well-being.
- Collaborative partnerships emphasize the significance of cooperation and collaboration among local government agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and the business community. By fostering meaningful partnerships and leveraging available resources, Missoula can maximize its capacity to address the homeless encampment issue effectively.
- Support the opening of 30 transitional housing units at the Blue Herron Navigation Center facilitating access to vital services such as healthcare, mental health support, substance abuse treatment, and job training programs.
- Fully fund and support the Mobile Response Team.
- Direct staff to provide weekly updates to council and the public regarding staff actions around urban camping.
- Short-term funding sources may include city reserves, a park district assessment, an emergency declaration, or potentially remaining ARPA funds.
Long-Term Solutions and Strategies
To prevent this crisis from reappearing every year, we must focus on long-term strategies that focus on housing, job skills and development, and personal accountability. A study on the investment of public funds in Denver to assist with the houselessness issue estimated the cost per unhoused individual to be between $42,000-$104,000 annually. No such study exists in Missoula. However, between public and non-profit efforts, as well as costs to businesses and private landlords in cleanup and security, there is little doubt the costs to try and manage this issue are significant. Rather than spending exorbitantly each year to triage issues, we need to focus on ways to change the outcomes.
- Create housing opportunities for everyone in Missoula. Permanently affordable housing should continue to receive support from the City, but Missoula should focus on expanding upon our strengths in these areas with more projects like Trinity and Villagio.
- Encourage housing partnerships with government and employers (MCPS, City, County, University) to create employee housing for entry-level employees to build a foundation to pursue home ownership, making recruitment and retention easier, and alleviating pressure on the overall housing market.
- Conduct comprehensive evaluation of Missoula's housing policies and zoning regulations to identify any barriers that may hinder housing development. Streamlining regulations and promoting public-private partnerships can facilitate the construction of more affordable housing units to address the root causes of homelessness.
- Work with Municipal and District Courts to identify gaps in mental health and substance abuse resources. Facilitate advocacy to state and federal levels with data around these issues.
- Direct staff to provide a menu of long-term community partnership options for council consideration, including costs and potential challenges. These options should include:
- A long-term transitional community with tiny houses or shelters, assigned campsites, and RV spaces similar to the planned community in Austin, Texas. https://mlf.org/community-first/
- A permanent shelter for year-round one-night accommodations operated similar to traditional shelters in Missoula.
- Creating an additional 30 units of transitional housing and wrap-around services similar to those to be opened this summer.
- Begin the early phase of a capital campaign to raise funds to support the construction of the chosen long-term solution or solutions.
"Homelessness is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and long-term solutions," said Mike Nugent. "My referral aims to address the immediate needs of our homeless population while also implementing sustainable strategies to prevent and reduce homelessness in the long run. By working together and leveraging the resources available to us, we can make a significant difference in the lives of our most vulnerable citizens. Our work will also ensure that Missoulians can enjoy the resources that we have spent generations building."
Nugent is committed to working diligently with stakeholders to ensure its successful implementation.
For those looking for ways to help, they can donate to the Housing Solutions Fund at the United Way of Missoula County: https://missoulaunitedway.org/housing-solutions-fund Or join the Housing Advocate Network at Missoula Interfaith Collaborative: http://micmt.org/housing-advocate-network/
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