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Missoula's ambitious plan: Ending homelessness

By Kyle Benjamin, Weekend Anchor, kbenjamin@keci.com
Published On: Nov 14 2012 06:51:19 PM MST
Updated On: Nov 14 2012 09:06:12 PM MST
MISSOULA, Mont. -

Wednesday evening officials held a public meeting to present their plan to end homelessness in Missoula. 

The plan was commissioned by Mayor John Engen and County Commissioner Jean Curtiss.  The goal is to end homelessness in Missoula using a 10-year plan.

The 10-year plan says on any given day, there are at least 200 homeless in Missoula -- individuals and families who don't have a permanent place to call their own -- something Mayor John Engen realized had to be addressed.

"There are fundamental problems that seem without solution, and one of those for a long time was homelessness," says Engen.

Part of that misnomer stems from from the perception surrounding the homeless plight.

"All of us had a picture in our mind of what being homeless meant, and who that was, and it was wrong," says Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, part of the 11-member working group that developed the plan.

Volunteers spent months assessing homelessness in Missoula, including who needs help, why they need help and the best way to assist them. 

Homelessness doesn't discriminate. The working group learned there are many people who may be one unexpected event away from living on the street. And those who are already there, may need a little assistance to get back on their feet. But it's not an easy fix.

Engen says, "This 10-year plan to end homelessness is really about aligning the community, the agencies, the individuals who work in the area of homelessness and poverty. [We need to] get us all pulling in the same direction and actually fixing the problem."

Those on the front line think this ambitious undertaking is a step in the right direction.

 "We're excited to see the 10-year plan draft come out and the recommendations that it contains. I think there is a lot of progressive movement in addressing homelessness and it's exciting to see our community jump on board," says Eran Fowler, director of Missoula's Poverello Center, one facility that caters to the Garden City's homeless population.

The mayor says there isn't one root cause of homelessness.  It's things like a lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay enough to meet daily financial demands. Many rental properties ask for first and  last months' rent, plus a security deposit up front.

"When we started digging into that a little bit, did we discover that homelessness is really about housing," says Engen.

“For folks the difference between sleeping in a car or couch surfing is not being able to pay the first and last month’s rent or a security deposit,” says Engen.  “In some cases were talking you're either homeless or not because of only $300 or $400.”

Consider this: The Missoula Organization of Realtors says the median cost of a two-bedroom apartment is $775 a month. A minimum wage employee would have to work 101 hours to earn that much.

"What we found was more than half the people, who are homeless every day in our community are from Missoula. They're just down on their luck for some reason or another," says Curtiss.

Engen wants to remind the public that homelessness is a community challenge and this 10-year plan will work best if it's supported by the community.