by William Skink
I understand the need to be positive and focus on gains made in the nearly impossible task of “ending homelessness” in Missoula, but at some point the effort to be positive, and how it’s reported in local media, deviates so far from reality that it becomes just PR spin, and does a disservice to those on the ground experiencing the need for services and those trying to deliver services.
There was a panel update Tuesday on Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness. Today the Missoula Current has an article about the update, which includes this:
That’s why Missoula leaders have developed a Coordinated Entry System, or CES, that provides multiple access points for those experiencing homelessness to receive help. These access points include agencies that are advertised as coordinated assessment centers and provide a “no wrong door” approach, meaning a person can go to any of the agencies and enter the system.
What does “no wrong door” mean? One could get the impression that you go to any of these homeless points of entry, say you are homeless, and start getting services. But that is not what happens at all.
First, the homeless individual or family has to meet a strict HUD definition of homelessness, which you can find more info about here.
The way it has worked here, in Missoula, is if you are couch-surfing, you are not considered homeless enough and won’t be assessed by the Coordinated Entry System. If you spent the previous night in a motel room you paid for yourself, you won’t be assessed by Coordinated Entry. But if an agency paid for your motel room, you can be assessed.
The idea of “no wrong door” creates an unrealistic expectation that front-line staff have to then deal with. It is not uncommon for people to get frustrated, to get angry, when they are told their situation is not homeless enough to warrant being assessed by this new system.
The Missoula Current also continues to use Point-in-time data to make it seem like homelessness in Missoula is decreasing:
According to a 2018 point-in-time survey, Missoula had 319 people experiencing homelessness, the highest population among 10 Montana cities that made a count.
Missoula also had the highest number of chronically homeless residents in the survey, at 46 individuals.
However, the city’s total homeless population is dropping, from 538 in 2015 to 395 in 2016, and lower each year since.
How can homeless numbers in Missoula be going down when the numbers at the homeless shelter have been going up? The Salvation Army’s warming center is serving 35-40, in addition to the 160-170 people being served by the Pov. I’m not sure how many people are being served by the DV shelter run by YWCA, or the women and children being served by UGM, or Mountain Home for young mothers, or the families being served by Family Promise, or the increasing numbers of people living in cars and old RVs, but it adds up.
And then there’s the plan itself.
I haven’t watched the whole panel presentation, but the three phases described at the beginning got my attention. Here is how the MC article describes it:
The initiative started in 2012 with two phases, “creating rapid, visible and meaningful change” and “building a coordinated system to end homelessness.”
In its third and final phase, “making adjustments to ensure sustainability,” agencies will work to maintain a system that responds to homelessness by providing rapid access to safe, sustainable long-term housing.
If anyone wants to consult the actual 10 year plan to end homelessness you can read it in pdf form here. I took a look and discovered on page 34 that phase 1 includes this:
Consolidate and/or coordinate existing efforts with clear point of entry and ability to scale to meet needs.
Here are some other phase 1 strategies from the plan:
Create a funding pool for start-up housing expenses (i.e., first & last month rent, deposit, utility deposit)
Initiate task force to structure insurance program that is appealing to landlords and property managers.
Engage landlords in eviction prevention, referral to homelessness prevention.
Somehow Phase 1 became “creating rapid, visible and meaningful change”. Huh? I guess that’s better than saying we hired someone who wasn’t up to the task and wasted over 3 years with little to show for it.
While there have been gains made in the past 7 years, I think it’s important to acknowledge that things have not gone according to the 10 year plan. The 3 phases now stated do not correlate with the actual goals laid out in 2012. The reason for this, in my opinion, is to protect those responsible for failing to provide the tools, oversight and leadership in the first 3 critical years of implementation.