The U.S. Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that cities cannot criminalize homelessness, for instance ticketing people for sleeping in public areas. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies can remove camps from public property, but this usually worsens the situation for all: Local governments have a legal obligation to store people’s property; issuing citations for local ordinances attempts to fine people who have no money, often tarnishing people’s records, which furthers their inability to pass landlords’ applications; dispersing people throughout the community makes them more vulnerable to criminals and more difficult for service providers to find should they have good news about housing; and usually people relocate elsewhere in the community, lacking resources to travel far.
People who have been living outdoors and outside mainstream society for some time often need considerable time to regain trust that someone from “the system” actually intends to help them. Missoula’s professional service providers, such as those who work for the Poverello Center’s Homeless Outreach Teams and Hope Rescue Mission, work to rebuild trust. They also work to bring people into the services they need, such as health care, food assistance, financial support, disability assistance and treatment for mental health and substance use. In 2019, outreach providers helped 20 households of people experiencing homelessness and sleeping on the streets find permanent housing.
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The federal government coined the phrase “ending homelessness” in 2009 and inspired several hundred U.S. communities to create plans to create systems that make homelessness rare, brief and one-time-only. People will always lose their homes, but those systems should provide immediate responses for people who fall into homelessness, effectively ending chronic homelessness.
In Missoula, the City-County plan has created the Missoula Coordinated Entry System. It works to prevent people from becoming homeless, divert households that are homeless for the first time, streamline services and prioritize limited housing resources to the most vulnerable people needing housing. Twenty-seven local agencies partner in the system, and 15 agencies have access to Missoula’s Homeless Management Information System, also coordinated under the 10- Year Plan, which provides instant digital access for service providers for quick responses to individual needs.
The solution to homelessness is housing. Missoula’s situation is compounded by rising housing prices and local wages that are not keeping pace to support those costs. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, one adult with no children working in Missoula County in 2018 needed to make a full-time hourly wage of $11.93 to support themselves. Montana’s wage in 2018 was $8.30 an hour, so even someone working a full-time job could struggle to afford stable housing. In fact, 40 percent of people seeking shelter at the Poverello Center homeless shelter are employed. In Missoula, the poverty rate is 19.8 percent, and the rate is 14.3 percent in Missoula County. Both figures are higher than the national averages.
Panhandling – simply asking for money -- is protected as free speech by the U.S. Constitution. The City of Missoula has ordinances in place that prohibit aggressive panhandling – following people to their cars and repeatedly demanding money, panhandling within certain distances of bank machines and outdoor dining and holding up signs that are not truthful. Police officers can cite people for these offenses. However, those tickets are often a case of attempting to extract fines from people with no money and who are disproportionately harmed by a record of offenses when they attempt to get housing. Missoula’s Downtown Police Officer helps redirect behaviors as well as issue tickets.
Montana is one of the few states in the country where it is not illegal to be drunk in public. The Montana Constitution prohibits all cities from creating ordinances that would make it so, with the idea that alcoholism is a disease, not a crime. Law enforcement officers can detain people for their own safety if they are very intoxicated, but they must take them to a medical facility or other safe environment. When severe alcoholics are taken to the Missoula County jail for serious crimes, they must be monitored and provided medical care, at great public expense.
Data show that the majority of people experiencing homelessness in Missoula lived in Missoula County when they became homeless. Missoula’s services are a regional draw because outlying rural communities often do not have those resources. Missoula is a regional hub for everybody, for medical care, bulk groceries, financial services and more.
Local government leaders in Missoula have heard loudly and clearly from residents that they wish to be a welcoming community and do not wish to turn their backs on people in need, at the individual or local government levels.
Trash in encampments is a serious concern, especially in a flood plain such as the area around the Reserve Street bridge. Neither the City nor the County is in the business of hauling or landfilling municipal trash; the area is served by private companies. The Missoula City-County Health Department has a role in investigating complaints about unmanaged garbage and trash, but it’s clear that issuing tickets or fines to indigent people would be ineffective. The outreach workers who regularly visit people living near the bridge hold cleanup days and remove trash in cooperation with the area’s private garbage hauler as well as the people staying in the camps.
The area is not inside the city limits, and it is in a flood plain and so not appropriate for developed park facilities. It does not meet the City’s current standards for acquisition as open space because of problems with public access; safety and security because of limited visibility; and environmental conditions that would have to be remediated.
Missoula does have people experiencing homelessness, but that is far less proportionately of the population than in those larger cities. By working on a system-wide approach and addressing housing solutions, the City and County’s goal is to make sure homelessness is as brief as possible and is a one-time event. Missoula has seen a noticeable improvement in helping many of the homeless people who were visible downtown transition into a stable living environment.