Fulfilling a mission for Missoula (2024)

In the 50 years since volunteers started a soup kitchen in downtown Missoula, the Poverello Center has grown to a leading nonprofit in the community, operating two emergency shelters and serving more than 120,000 meals annually.

The Poverello Center — commonly known as the Pov — has expanded its footprint, outreach and support services and adjusted the way it operates to better serve unhoused people with dignity, according to its leadership team. The organization runs a 150-bed shelter on West Broadway and a 165-bed shelter on Johnson Street, both for adults.

In the last 15 years, the nonprofit has matured into a professional organization pursuing solutions to homelessness in Missoula and statewide, said Kristen Border Patton, Poverello operations director.

“The Pov for many, many years was reactive,” said Stephanie Dolan, the organization’s development director. “Now we’re proactive, thinking about the future of what the organization looks like, in general, what homelessness in Missoula might look like and taking a seat at the table.”

The Poverello Center is using this anniversary as a chance to reflect on the past and solicit community input on its future, said executive director Jill Bonny.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who lives here who doesn’t know what the Pov is at least, and I don’t think it’s just because homelessness is in the news a lot right now,” she said. “It’s because we’re just so much a part of the community. I think that is really beneficial because the people we serve are our neighbors and members of the community just like people who are housed.”

A VOLUNTEER BEGINNING

According to the Poverello Past and Future exhibit at the Missoula Public Library, a group of volunteers from St. Francis Xavier Church established the Poverello Center in 1974 as a ministry to feed, clothe and shelter people.

The organization served one hot meal daily in the former Knights of Columbus building on East Pine Street before moving to the home of then-director June Kenney. The Pov started fundraising for a permanent location after objections to the soup kitchen’s location in a residential zone. On Feb. 1, 1976, the center moved to 535 Ryman St., where it stayed for nearly 39 years.

The Poverello began providing overnight shelter in 1981 after constructing a $95,000 addition to the Ryman Street building. The shelter had space to house 14 men, four women and two families for short-duration stays.

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In 1984, the Pov served 29,495 meals and provided overnight shelter to 4,673 people. As of this year, the Pov has served more than four million meals and provided more than a million nights of shelter.

The Poverello was at full capacity by spring 2007. At the time, most people staying at the shelter were in temporary crisis, with about 20% chronically homeless, or unhoused for at least 12 months or repeatedly. Now, about 65% of Missoula’s homeless population is chronically homeless, according to a report released earlier this year on the economic impacts of homelessness.

In 2009, almost 2,500 people sought shelter at the Ryman Street location, and by the following year, the Pov was struggling with capacity and service issues.

Border Patton, the operations director who began working at the Poverello in 2009, said it was difficult to serve people with dignity at the old building because it was never intended to be a shelter. No elevator and narrow hallways made navigating the shelter challenging for people using wheelchairs, she said.

“That building worked well for a lot of years when we weren’t serving as many people,” Border Patton said. “We got too big for that.”

Following widespread public debate over the organization’s plan to build a new facility at 1110 West Broadway, construction began in 2013. The Pov moved to its new location in December 2014, which increased the shelter from about 80 to 150 beds and made space for new and expanded services.

MORE THAN FOOD AND SHELTER

Bonny, the executive director, said many people are unaware of the Pov’s programs beyond providing shelter and meals.

“We continue to struggle with finding out how to better educate our community on all the things we do,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s a tour I’ve done in this building for someone who hasn’t been here before that didn’t end with, ‘I had no idea all the stuff you guys do. I thought this was just a place where people slept and ate.’”

The organization’s Homeless Outreach Team — which has grown from one to five people since 2011 — builds relationships with people living on the street and provides food, gear, support and connection to services. The team also works with businesses to help them understand the issues and better interact with unhoused people.

About five years ago, the team found a man who broke his hip by the river and got him to medical treatment, Border Patton said.

“They’re kind of the only ones going out to these camps and making sure folks are OK,” she said. “Just checking in with them, having relationships has been really good.”

The larger facility made room for a Partnership Health satellite clinic and a medical respite program for unhoused people healing from illness or injury. Since 2016, the program has cared for more than 400 individuals and saved an estimated $2 million in medical costs, according to the Poverello Center.

“It’s saved us a lot of money, but I think more importantly, it saves a lot of suffering too,” Border Patton said.

The West Broadway building also accommodated the veterans’ transitional housing program, which allows veterans to stay for up to two years while they work to secure income and housing. In 2022, the Poverello purchased the Clark Fork Inn, which will be demolished and rebuilt to house the program, including 20 single-occupancy apartments.

In November 2020, the Poverello Center began operating the Johnson Street shelter after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the main shelter’s capacity by 50%, Bonny said. The temporary shelter operated as a 24-hour winter shelter for three seasons and was paid for by the city and county. After a spike in the unsheltered population last spring and summer, the Johnson Street shelter reopened in September with funding for one year of year-round operations.

The Poverello Center’s staff has grown over time with the organization, as have efforts to better support workers who often experience secondary trauma from the job, Border Patton said.

The organization is more adequately staffed than in the past and pays higher wages, Border Patton said. The Pov has a 4% turnover rate compared to the national rate of about 10% for the social service industry, she said.

“We’re retaining staff significantly better than the standard because we try hard to support people,” she said.

The Poverello Center has also focused on hiring more people who have experienced homelessness, substance use or the criminal justice system, said shelter director Clair Bopp. Their experience helps inform day-to-day interactions and policy changes, she said.

Volunteers still play a large role, with more than 270 serving the organization in 2023. Community members help serve meals, staff the front desk, run the food pantry and assist the Homeless Outreach Team. Church groups also help by making sack lunches or providing donations, said Dolan, the development director.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

As the Poverello Center, and the population it serves, has grown, the organization faces a host of new and old challenges, its leaders said.

More people coming to the shelter are struggling with mental health problems, a direct consequence of the Legislature’s steep cuts to the state’s behavioral health care budget seven years ago, Dolan said.

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In 2017, the Legislature cut $49 million from the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget, leading to the loss of a wide range of medical and behavioral health services across the state, according to Montana Public Radio. That included roughly halving the Medicaid reimbursem*nt for case management, which helps coordinate services for an individual’s specific needs, KFF Health News reported.

As those services declined, more people showed up at the Pov needing additional support to maintain housing, Border Patton said. That included one woman who would lose her house key daily and previously had a case manager who would keep an extra key to let her in. After losing that support, that woman couldn’t keep her apartment on her own.

“There’s dozens of anecdotes like that,” Border Patton said. “If somebody just had a little bit of help they could be successfully housed, but without anything, those people are just left out in the cold.”

Dolan said she hopes some of the $300 million lawmakers set aside to overhaul the state’s mental health system during the last legislative session will go toward providing case management.

While the Pov has always served people struggling with substance use, the shelter did not admit people who were under the influence until the last seven years.

“We have really looked at our policies to be more housing-first, allowing people to come in as they are, and as long as … their behavior can be good, they can stay,” Bonny said.

While it’s difficult to compare today’s challenges to the past, fentanyl and other more powerful drugs have “changed the landscape,” said Bopp, the shelter services director. Fentanyl seems to have made some people more unpredictable, Bonny said.

Shelter staff are responding to overdoses more often, performing CPR and administering opioid overdose reversal medication Narcan on a regular basis, Bonny said.

Treatment options are limited, often making it difficult for people with substance use disorders to move on to housing, Bonny said. A criminal record can be an additional challenge, she said.

Overall, people are spending more time at the Poverello Center, with the statewide average length of stay in shelters increasing from 30 days to 120, Bonny said. Missoula’s lack of affordable housing and a shortage of jobs that pay enough to afford housing contribute to that trend, she said.

“Ten years ago, if somebody could get a job and make money we could be pretty sure they’d be able to find an apartment eventually,” Bopp said. “They just needed the time, whether it was six weeks or two months, to sock away some money for that first month’s rent and deposit and they would be OK. Since then that’s just not the case. People either are unwell or too old to work. Also just having a job doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

While more supportive housing is needed, recent projects and new services — including the Meadowlark shelter for families and those fleeing domestic violence, the Blue Heron Place permanent supportive housing, the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space and the Mobile Support Team — are big wins for Missoula, Dolan said.

“What I hope to see is people continue to work toward trying to put other services and supports like that in place,” she said.

One of Missoula’s ongoing challenges is a lack of specific, stable places for unsheltered people to camp, Dolan said. Forcing people to move from place to place makes it more difficult for the Homeless Outreach Team to work with them, she said.

Bonny also said the city needs a permanent second emergency shelter. The Johnson Street shelter was always temporary, and the building and location are not ideal, she said.

“We really need to come up with a plan now while we still have a location because even though it’s warmer out, we’re still sleeping 100 people over there every night,” Bonny said. “It’s just really important to make sure that service is available.”

The alternatives for people, especially during dangerous weather, are jail or the hospital, neither of which are cost-effective nor appropriate for people who just need a place to sleep, Border Patton said.

Studies estimating the costs of homelessness to the government and health care system typically find communities spend an average of $7,000 to $10,000 per unhoused person per year, according to the Economic Impact of Homelessness in Missoula report. That cost is much higher than the cost to run the shelter for a year or funding for the homeless outreach team, Dolan said.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Over the years, the Poverello has collaborated more closely with local government, emergency responders and other service providers to connect people to the care they need and work toward community-wide solutions, Bonny said.

Shortly after Bonny became executive director about three years ago, the Poverello Center spearheaded the formation of the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness with other shelters and partner organizations.

The group has worked to educate the public and legislators about homelessness and the benefits of coordinating care, case management and tenant support, including cost savings, Bonny said. During the last legislative session, the coalition secured $5 million in funding for shelters across the state as part of the building appropriations bill, she said.

“That’s the first time in history that the state of Montana has supported, financially, emergency shelters,” she said. “We’re not done. We’re continuing and have some great goals and plans for the upcoming session.”

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As the need for services has increased, government and nonprofit partnerships are more necessary to afford rising costs, Bonny said.

While Missoula is a generous community, the area has many nonprofits and donors are fatigued, Bonny said. It’s increasingly difficult for nonprofits like the Poverello Center to raise enough money from local donors and foundations to continue operations, she said.

“Montana needs to look to other states that have better partnerships with not only local government but their state government and on to the federal [government],” Bonny said.

The Poverello Center is hosting its 50th Anniversary Fundraising Gala on June 27, and throughout the year is running a campaign to raise $1 million more than its operating budget to help shore up losses, close the gap on the Clark Fork Inn project, fund the Homeless Outreach Team and maintain equitable access to services, Dolan said.

“We wish we didn’t have to ask the community, honestly, but we’re not an organization where we have readily available resources,” she said. “Part of being the Pov is understanding that it’s a community effort that makes this place work, and we’re super grateful for everybody in the community who has given and supported us.”

While Poverello staff can get caught up in wanting to help everyone as much as possible and become discouraged by reality, Border Patton said she reminds them that the organization is doing what it set out to do.

“We have provided warm, safe shelter and food for I don’t even know how many people in the last 50 years,” she said. “That is actually our mission and we’re doing it, we’ve been successful with it.”

Border Patton said she hopes to see more services in the community and for peoples’ stays at the shelter to be briefer and rare.

The Poverello is concentrating on its existing programs, but Bonny said in the future the organization may help prevention efforts. Keeping people housed is easier and cheaper than getting them out of homelessness, she said.

“It’s unfortunate we’ve needed to be here for this amount of time, but we have been and we’ll continue to be here as long as people need us to be,” Bonny said.

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