On December 21, 2020, the longest night of the year, Missoulians gathered largely online and also in person in front of the Poverello Center’s new ‘You Are Loved’ mural and at the Johnson Street Shelter locations to remember the 25 people who passed away while experiencing homelessness in 2020. Another individual passed away after the memorial, making the year’s total 26.
Their names are listed in this newsletter. May they rest in peace.
A Wing and A Prayer:
Missoula Works Together to Keep People Warm During the Pandemic
Ensuring shelter for people experiencing homelessness throughout Montana’s harsh winters is no simple task, and a global pandemic hasn’t made it any easier.
“It’s just amazing to see some of the stuff we pull off here,” Guy Johnson, a Senior Lead Staff Member, said. “Something unexpected happens, we improvise, and it may be on a wing and a prayer, but we always are able to make something happen.”
This year, for winter shelter, “making something happen” took a whole lot of collaboration.
Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, who has been involved in organizing winter shelter from the City’s end, gives his thanks to a whole team of folks who all worked together to make winter shelter a reality this year.
In addition to the Pov, organizations with staff involved in the planning committee include Hope Rescue Mission, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, the Salvation Army, Open Aid Alliance, and Winds of Change.
“We’ve met about emergency winter shelter every month throughout the year,” Bryan said. “In fact we started reckoning with the space and capacity challenges we’d face this winter before the end of last winter.”
For several years, the City of Missoula has been working to make sure there is enough shelter capacity for people experiencing homelessness during colder winter months.
In tandem, the Poverello has worked to help lower barriers to access shelter services, operating an overnight warming shelter at the Salvation Army. Up to this year, the strategy had worked well in terms of having enough capacity.
Then COVID hit.
To facilitate CDC social distancing guidelines, one of the Pov’s first interventions was to limit the number of sleeping spaces.
In previous winters, the Pov’s West Broadway facility could shelter up to 175; but in March of last year, after the arrival of the coronavirus in Missoula, the cap had to drop to 88. Similarly, in a normal year, the Salvation Army could sleep 60 people; factoring in social distance, the space allows for 30.
“That leaves a big hole to fill in terms of meeting capacity needs,” Amy Allison Thompson, the Pov’s Executive Director, said. “This is something we realized early on in the pandemic and immediately started working on with the City and County.”
Also because of COVID, spaces that used to open their doors as day-time warming spaces to people experiencing homelessness are no longer able to extend that service.
“Last year, people had the Salvation Army, the Break, the library, and other locations as day-time warming spaces,” Clair Bopp, the Pov’s Shelter Manager, said. “This year, with COVID, the usual warming spaces are not an option.”
By November 1st, the winter shelter planning team’s hard work had paid off and they were able to open the doors of the Johnson Street Emergency Shelter for up to 150 people per night.
In addition to providing a 24-hour space for guests to keep warm, the “J-Street Shelter,” as it has come to be known by guests and staff, serves one hot meal a day, and by the end of January, it is slated to have a mobile shower trailer, in which guests will even be able to do a load of laundry.
Jaycee Marceau, Jr. Lead Staff at the J-Street Shelter, said a lot of folks come up to the J-Street Shelter from the Reserve camps when it’s too cold outside. She says that when given the choice – especially when it starts warming up – people prefer to be in their camps rather than in the shelter.
Jaycee, who has worked at the Pov for a year, has taken a lead role in making policies at the temporary shelter. She said that at J-Street, they’ve adopted a behavior based model, meaning if an individual can be safe, kind, and respectful, they’re eligible to receive services, even if they’re intoxicated.
“Pretty much, if you can get into your bed, if we can get your temp and get you screened, you’re good to stay,” she said.
The Pov shelter location has a zero-tolerance substance policy, meaning if an individual is at all intoxicated, they’re not permitted to stay. Some guests who are trying to maintain their sobriety prefer to stay at the Poverello where they say they are not as tempted to use.
“More options means more hope,” Guy, who has been training the many new staff it takes to run the temporary shelter, said. “For whatever their reason, not everyone is gonna stay 100% sober, and that doesn’t mean they deserve to freeze to death. It’s been surprisingly mellow around here since day one, and so long as they can come on in and behave themselves, they’re more than welcome.”
The facility itself is owned by the City and was formerly occupied by Sovereign Hope Church, which had been renting the space. When the space was being considered for winter shelter, the church was already in the process of relocating.
$450,000 of the total cost of the temporary winter shelter – which is around $550,000 – is funded through a federal block grant focused on COVID-related interventions for people experiencing homelessness. The City and County split the difference of the remaining cost with funding that had already been allocated for winter shelter.
The high cost of operating the shelter, which is in part due to having to keep it open around the clock, is but one reason why the facility is not a long term solution.
“A lot of people think that the Johnson Street shelter will be permanent,” Jesse Jaeger, the Pov’s Director of Development, said. “Not true. We have no interest in utilizing that facility beyond what is necessary for COVID response.”
Jaeger said that the hope is that next year, the Pov is back to working with the Salvation Army for winter shelter. As for the long term strategy, the Pov is looking forward to the opening of the Trinity Project, a collaboration among Homeword, the Missoula Housing Authority, and BlueLine Development.
Featured Pov Guest Helps Ensure Safety, Sanitation For All
When Rob first showed up to the Pov in February 2020, he had no idea what he was in for. For the first time, Rob was experiencing homelessness, and not much later he became one of the first to join the Pov’s volunteer sanitation crew against a deadly virus.
“If it wasn’t for COVID, I’d already have gone back to Hawaii,” Rob said.
Rob arrived in Montana just before the pandemic to visit a friend. When things fell through with his housing arrangement, and without being able to return to Hawaii due to COVID-related restrictions, Rob found himself at the Pov.
Grateful for a place to stay, Rob was more than happy to volunteer and help keep the Pov clean. And it didn’t take long for Mort Olson, the Pov’s Maintenance Technician, to notice Rob’s strong work ethic.
“That guy has been working his ass off around here, damn near around the clock, seven days a week,” Mort Olson, the Pov’s maintenance technician, said. “I’m worried he’s starting to fray!”
Rob credits plenty of bleach and the Pov’s thorough sanitation protocol for keeping folks healthy and safe.
“We spray a lot of bleach here, man. I hit everything,” he said. “They bought a backpack sprayer for me, so I have three or four gallons on me at a time. We do everything from 4 feet down, we bleach it all, the floors–everything.”
Rob has since signed up for the Pov’s Resident Volunteer program. In exchange for some modest privileges, Resident Volunteers–or “RVs” for short–play a major role in making sure that meals are served, house laundry is taken care of, and since the arrival of the coronavirus, making sure the building is sanitized from top to bottom.
“I was a happy cat keeping busy and doing something just because I was staying here, but it worked out to be an RV,” he said. “I get a couple perks here and there.”
Due to a prior work injury, Rob is currently on disability. New to the community, he’s hoping that his experience working with the sanitation crew at the Pov will earn him a positive employment reference for a janitorial job to help him get back on his feet.
“I’m trying to do a real job, like, if you were to hire someone from the outside,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best I can because it might be saving me, it might be saving you – If nothing else, it looks clean, it smells clean, and I like it.”
Before the coronavirus, many routine cleaning tasks were chores, completed by clients in exchange for their night of stay.
Due to safety risk and the need for the protocol to be thorough, much of the sanitation work is now in the hands of a designated crew.
“I’ve had people come here who have been here before and go, ‘man, I’ve never seen this place so clean, and I’ve been in homeless shelters all over, this is the cleanest one I’ve ever seen,’ so that kinda makes me feel good,” Rob said.
Regarding his personal safety, Rob said he’s not all that concerned.
“I’m more worried about my kids,” he said. “I’m a grandpa four-times over, I got two in California and two in Hawaii.”
The case count among guests and staff alike has been relatively low, perhaps, Rob thinks, because of how clean the place is kept.
“A couple people got sick here,” he said. “But it didn’t seem to blow through like everyone had talked about, you know. They were saying that if it gets in here, it’s gonna run through everybody. I don’t know, man, maybe the bleach is really working.”
A Letter from Amy
As we wrap up 2020, I want to share how proud I am of our staff, volunteers, donors, and the whole community as we have worked together to serve our most vulnerable neighbors through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our team at the Poverello Center has been flexible, creative, and compassionate as we have worked together to transform how we provide services to our guests nearly overnight. As a group, we have had to make some hard but necessary choices to protect the health of guests and volunteers.
Our amazing and generous volunteers stuck with us during this turbulent year. Many have continued to volunteer throughout the pandemic, helping us continue key services like the soup kitchen and food pantry. Those who could not continue to volunteer in the shelter have found other ways to support our work by organizing supply drives and inviting friends and family to support the Poverello Center.
We would not have made it through this year without the extraordinary support we received from our donors. We started 2020 with a $1.5 million budget, but as we close this year we will have spent over $2 million because of the pandemic. We have met this challenge because our donors had our back. Many gave extra or made second, or even third, gifts throughout the year. And nearly 700 people donated to the Poverello Center for the first time this year. We couldn’t have done it without you.
In addition, as a community, we have done amazing things together this year to protect those who are most vulnerable.
The City of Missoula and Missoula County partnered and bought a hotel so that the Health Department had a place for those without a home to quarantine. I know this action saved lives and made it possible for the Poverello Center to protect the health of our guests.
Our friends at Hope Rescue Mission and the United Way of Missoula County opened up the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space out on HWY 93 so that those who will not, or cannot, come into shelter had a safe and legal place to camp.
And, at the Poverello Center, we opened up a brand new 24-hour Temporary Winter Shelter Facility with the support of the City of Missoula, Missoula County, and Providence St. Patrick Hospital. This space allows us to make sure that everyone who wants a warm place to go during the winter months has a socially distanced space.
As we move into 2021, we must begin to look forward again. The COVID-19 pandemic has made our communities’ crisis of homelessness, housing instability, and food insecurity even more clear. We are already seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness and the economic consequences of the pandemic will just get worse over the coming months and years.
Together we must continue to serve those in crisis while taking on the systemic challenges that are causing homelessness and food insecurity in our community. As the 2021 Montana Legislative Session begins we need to ask our representatives to support policies that increase affordable housing, create living wages, and provide for more substance abuse and mental health treatment in our communities.
Volunteer Spotlight: Jim Thompson
If you’ve spent any time at all in the Pov in the last four-and-a-half years, you’ve probably seen Jim Thompson, one of the Pov’s most beloved volunteers, tucked behind the front desk, thumbing through a stack of mail.
“Early on in the pandemic, we were really concerned about Jim continuing to volunteer because he’s an older adult,” Zac Mauldin, the Pov’s Volunteer Coordinator, said. “Now he’s back in the building. He loves being here, and everyone loves having him here.”
Jim says he’s not really concerned about contracting COVID while at the Pov.
“As a matter of fact, I feel as safe here as I do at the manor,” he said. “You just have to be careful. Do what you’re told. It seems like it’s working.”
Jim lives in a senior citizen’s apartment complex and says he likes to keep an active lifestyle.
“I know that I’m a senior citizen, but I don’t sit around all day like some of these other folks,” he said. “I don’t know what these other people do with themselves!”
Jim’s hours at the Pov are spent sending out donor thank you letters, organizing and alphabetizing the tremendous amount of mail the Pov receives for its guests, and taking care of several other miscellaneous tasks that admin staff send his way.
“People always tell me, ‘You don’t need to work. Why do you want to go there? It’s a bad place!’” he said. “Well, I think I’ve changed a few minds. Homelessness has such a stigma. People automatically think they’re addicts, or too lazy to go to work.”
Jim says that he often gets recognized for working at the Pov when he’s out and about, walking to and from the Pov or out around town.
“How they know I work here, I don’t know,” he said. “People come up to me and thank me for the work I do. I know some are former clients. They thank me, and say my work is not a futile effort.”
Jim is no stranger to work that isn’t futile. After only two weeks of retirement from a career in accounting, Jim said he had enough. He was living in Florida and went back to his home town in Alabama where he began writing grants for Alabama Childhood Food Solutions.
After four years of grant writing in exchange for groceries, Jim finally decided to move across the country to Missoula, where he has a nephew.
“I’m the end of my family,” Jim said. “I have one nephew here in Missoula, and he’s really the reason I moved here.”
Although he has relocated, Jim continues his grant writing work from afar and is currently working on raising $2 million for a new food storage warehouse.
Formerly through Experience Works, Jim volunteers at the Pov through the Easterseals – GoodWill as a part of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), a federal job training program for which the Poverello Center is a host agency.
Jim’s term with the SCSEP was supposed to be up last June, but administrators with Experience Works helped him extend his placement due to the pandemic and the challenge of finding paid work apart from the program. Now, Jim’s time with the program is up this coming June, when he hopes to be hired on by the Pov.
“While it may not be the case for Jim, there are a number of older adults who still need to work, literally to make ends meet,” Zac said. “They face a lot of barriers to employment, and programs like this acknowledge that. He’s here part time, engaging in a job training that enables him to stimulate his mind, body and spirit. It’s nice to engage older adults in the community in this way.”
“Why I Give” – Mea Andrews
“Hot meals and a place to sleep were the first reasons I supported the Pov; these are basic needs for everyone. But I also give because I’ve seen the Pov’s staff at work. They are amazing: compassionate, skilled, patient, knowledgeable, dedicated, relentless. They make a huge (often invisible) difference in Missoula and in many, many lives. I want them to continue what they do and that won’t happen without support from me and others.”
Bopp and Rocco on Managing Montana’s Largest Emergency Shelter
From the bizarre to the mundane, working at an emergency shelter has challenges one could never have imagined they would face. Managing staff who have to work through such challenges – now that’s shelter work on an entirely different level.
“We have three facilities that all operate 24 hours a day, so every day starts with catching up on what you’ve missed the last 12 hours,” Shelter Manager Clair Bopp said. “We spend time meeting with community members, task forces about ending homelessness, managing what’s happening in the shelter, and occasionally I get to work one-on-one with clients.”
Clair recently celebrated her 5 year anniversary with the Poverello, a stretch that began when she was doing her practicum for grad school with the University of Montana’s Social Work program. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Clair first came to Missoula in 2011 while in AmeriCorps.
Clair, who earned her BA in History from Kalamazoo, started to think about pursuing a career in social work when she worked for Montana Legal Services. She says her favorite part about working at the Pov is the sense of community she feels among guests, staff and leadership.
This year, having taken the reins of the shelter manager position in the fall and considering the challenges added by the coronavirus and additional needs due to the operation of the Johnson Street temporary winter shelter, Clair needed a little extra support. Enter Josh Rocco, Assistant Shelter Manager.
“Rocco,” as he is called by guests and staff, is in his third year at the Pov, and while Clair works on the more organizational and level of management, Rocco works more closely with staff as a much-needed support.
Prior to working at the shelter, Rocco helped start Art Seed, an art collective in Spokane.
“Spokane brought to light homelessness as a social issue for me,” Rocco said. “That, and I have a huge interest in intentional communities and how those work. In some ways, the Pov is kinda like an intentional community.”
With the opening of winter shelter, a big part of Rocco’s responsibility has been helping to hire around 20 new staff members. Historically, hiring people to work at the Pov through the winter has been a tough task to say the least.
“We meet our new hires at the new shelter, and they see it’s basically a warehouse with paint on the floor,” Clair said. “We were just waiting for them to be like, ‘I’m out’ – but they’re not, they stick with us. We got a really good team over there.”
Among his job’s many challenges, Rocco said his least favorite part is saying ‘no’ to people – to staff and guests alike. As for Clair, she said she feels constantly “switched on,” even when at home.
“We don’t ever close for the day and call it good,” she said. “I can get a phone call at any moment and immediately have to help staff navigate what can often be pretty difficult situations.”
More Than “Just” Wages
Low wages across the state are a driving factor affecting homelessness. Here at the Pov, making sure we offer a living wage to our own staff is critically important – not only to our hard working direct care staff, case managers, and maintenance crew, but also to our mission of providing food, shelter, help and hope to all who ask.
Pay raises have been a long-term strategic goal and priority of the Pov’s board of directors as well as the administrative team and are the result of a multi-year plan. Our base pay is now $12.50 an hour, a $2.50 an hour improvement from what we were able to pay this time last year. With the additional risks involved in working in a congregate setting during the pandemic, we have also been able to offer hazard pay. We could not have been successful in offering any of this without the continued support from all our donors – specifically a designated donation from the Crocus Foundation, for which we are tremendously grateful.
For a lot of our staff, who truly have one of the most physically and emotionally taxing jobs in our community, this pay raise has made the difference between staying at the Pov and continuing to provide their services, warmth and direly needed compassion to those who may need it most, or seeking higher-paid employment elsewhere. Our staff and donors are all heroes. As you think about giving to the Poverello Center, we hope you consider how much you’re helping us maintain wages that are more just.
Honoring Those Who Passed
On December 21, 2020, the longest night of the year, Missoulians gathered largely online and also in person in front of the Poverello Center’s new ‘You Are Loved’ mural and at the Johnson Street Shelter locations to remember the 25 people who passed away while experiencing homelessness in 2020. Another individual passed away after the memorial, making the year’s total 26. Their names are listed here. May they rest in peace.
Sean Stevenson* – Mary Rubnic – John Burns – Charles Profit – Angelina Joscum – Pedro Cruz – John Bacon – Melvin Brecht – Beverely George – Tony Eadus* – Daniel Bullplume – Joseph Snippen – Cynthia Purvis -Minnie Chiefstick – David Spencer – Steven Trosper – Jesse James Kale Brown – Lee Nelson – Sandra Baylor – Jacqueline Hemrick – David Otte* – Tana Gayer – Joel McConnell – Kelly Fowler – Sundance Hernandez – Derrick Goeltz
*Indicates Veteran status