Former Valor House Tenant Michael McNamara:
Veteran, Housing Activist and LGBTQ Advocate
There are few things closer to Michael McNamara’s heart than the Poverello Center’s Veteran Programs. They’re programs that literally rescued him from taking his own life.
“I watched my mental illness go from depression–just one step above suicide–to now, where I have my own place and I pay my own bills,” he said. “I chalk it up to the Valor House and having had that program.”
Michael served in the Navy for four years as a Data Processing Technician stationed on the East Coast. After he was discharged in ’82 for smoking marijuana, he moved to Seattle where he spent the next 30 years as an activist with the Seattle Gay News.
“I’ve been out as bi since I was 18 years old, and I knew I was bi since I was 13,” he said. “I was, you know, this free guy from the 70s. It was fun, it was a blast, it was before AIDS.”
Michael fell into a deep depression after his HIV diagnosis in 1990, which ultimately led to his first episode of homelessness. It was then that his drug and alcohol use began to spiral out of control.
“HIV was a death sentence back then,” he said. “And there weren’t any good drugs to treat it.”
Getting into housing was the first step in helping Michael stabilize his mental health, he said. Without accessing housing first, Michael is doubtful he would have had much progress in recovering his mental health.
“I’m of the mind that if you can get a person’s mental health together, the rest will follow. You shouldn’t have to get sober before you can access good mental health services–it goes the other way around. We need to look at the mental health issue, first, and that means getting people housed.”
After staying for 13 years in a Seattle-based housing program through the Northwest AIDS Foundation, Michael came to Missoula to be close enough to help out his father in Eureka. Michael, who was born on a military base in Japan, returned to Montana with his family when he was 3 years old.
“I’m a Montana boy through and through,” he said. “Coming back, I knew Missoula was the only place I could live ‘cuz I’m a radical, lefty kinda guy.”
Despite his warm feelings for the organization, Michael says that staying at the Pov was never easy or enjoyable.
“Going to the Pov is a traumatic experience, and everybody staying there right now will tell you that,” he said. “When I first came to town I went to the Old Pov. The old, bed bug Pov, man. I got bit–everybody got bit.”
While he was thankful to have a roof overhead, Michael said it wasn’t hard to slip back into depression while staying at the shelter, and he often felt suicidal. Michael spent time in multiple treatment programs and sober living spaces, cycling back and forth between relapse and housing before finally deciding to use his Veteran status to enter Valor House.
“I never really used my Veteran status because of my discharge, but I was homeless, I was desperate, and I needed to have a total hip replacement,” he said. “I was very, very lucky to get into a place where I could get my hip replaced without living in a shelter or on the street.”
Michael first enrolled in the Pov’s Veteran Shelter Program, which provides case management, a spot in the Pov’s general facility, and is often an entry-point for Veterans who later enroll in either Housing Montana Heroes or in the Valor House programs. Two months later, he entered Valor House, which provides 17 private, fully-furnished apartment units to eligible Veterans.
“That’s the great thing about the Valor House program – there’s quick turnover,” he said. “A homeless Vet really doesn’t have to wait that long to get housing.”
Veterans are eligible to stay at Valor House for up to two years. During that time, the Veteran Programs Case Management team works to provide participants the additional supports they need to ensure they access permanent, stable housing upon program exit.
Michael, who left Valor House for his own apartment this past winter, said that Valor isn’t the only thing he attributes to his housing success. He also credits the collaboration of service providers through Missoula’s Coordinated Entry System.
The system, or MCES as it is referred to among the local professional community, streamlines and prioritizes services for the community’s most vulnerable individuals, and the operation of such a system has quickly become a national best practice. Missoula’s engagement with Coordinated Entry began in 2017 through the City’s project, Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
“The Coordinated Entry System – I originally did not think that was a good idea,” Michael said. “But as a community, we’re seeing that it works. It worked for me, and I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets getting housing.”
Michael said that not only have a lot of these individuals gotten into housing, but they’ve kept their housing – something the Poverello also focuses on through its Housing Retention Program.
“That’s just proof to me that when Missoula sets out to solve a problem, they can solve a problem,” he said. “Whatever that old system was, it wasn’t working. Now I don’t know why they don’t just set up a campground under the reserve street bridge and pay the guy who owns that land – but that’s another issue entirely.”
#PovFacts: Veteran Programs in 2019
Giving Help and Inspiring Hope: Field Education Provides Unique Learning Opportunities and Value to the Poverello
Every fall, agencies like the Poverello Center welcome a new wave of practicum students, who provide a valuable source of labor at no financial cost while also providing valuable on-site learning opportunities for participating students.
“Practicum students have become an incredibly valuable part of the work we do here as an organization,” Amy Allison Thompson, the Pov’s Executive Director, said. “Not only is it a fantastic learning opportunity for the student – the Pov, as an organization, benefits tremendously from their work, too.”
Last year, the Pov hosted 8 students, who participated in programs organization-wide. Placements spanned from leadership positions and case management in the Poverello’s general shelter, to positions on the Homeless Outreach Team, as well as a position in the Poverello’s fundraising department.
While the majority of the Poverello’s practicum students come from the University of Montana’s School of Social Work, the organization also hosts students from Walla Walla University’s Missoula-based Wilma Hepker School of Social Work and Sociology.
According to UM standards, students must complete a set number of practicum hours before completion of their program; 450 for BSW candidates and 900 for MSWs.
“The social work field education program at the Pov has been so incredibly valuable to us as an organization, and we look forward to expanding internship opportunities at the Pov to include folks from other professions as well,” Jesse Jaeger, the Pov’s Director of Development and Advocacy, said.
A Different Kind of Front Line:
An Interview with Veteran & Pov Practicum Student Andrew Johnson
Veteran Case Manager Andrew Johnson said that even after 5 years in the Navy, he still has no idea what the inside of a ship looks like. His time served does, however, give him some unique insight into his work at the Poverello.
Andrew was a Hospital Corpsman and did emergency medical work for a marine infantry unit in Camp Pendleton, California. In addition to his time on base, he did two tours; one in Iraq, and one in Afghanistan; as well as a humanitarian response mission to Japan after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
“The military is very much an institution, and it’s certainly not the only one in our society,” he said. “It’s got a lot of characteristics in common with other institutions, like prisons, group homes, mental health units – all of those. My experience in the military has helped me build a lot of empathy there.”
Like many others returning from service, when Andrew came home from Afghanistan, he had trouble readjusting and reintegrating into society.
“I was in a pretty bad place, and a social worker was really the one who helped me put the pieces back together,” he said. “I was inspired.”
When Andrew Johnson first signed up for the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Montana, he already knew he wanted to log his 900 hours of required field education at the Pov.
“I gravitated toward the Pov because I always thought that if I were to enter into social work, the Pov would be the best place to start,” he said. “The Poverello, to me, always seemed like the hub of social work in Missoula, and I wanted to be part of that.”
Upon entering grad school, Andrew was coming out of a federal job with the VA and wanted to do something completely different. Andrew spent the first year of his practicum at the Pov as a Housing Case Manager in the main shelter. In signing on for a second year, he secured a paid position as a Veteran Case Manager.
Andrew said that compared to working for the rigid systems of the VA, which he was doing before entering grad school, he’s glad to work at the Pov where there’s a little more flexibility. But that doesn’t mean the work doesn’t have it’s challenges.
“The difficult thing about working at the Pov doesn’t really have anything to do with the Pov at all,” he said. “My frustrations center mostly around resources and how our society doesn’t do a great job of allocating those resources to our most vulnerable citizens.”
While he acknowledges that working at the Poverello is not for the faint of heart, what he gains educationally is more than worth it. One of the most potent lessons he’s learned in the past year is in the healing power of just giving people space to be heard, he said.
Jill Bonny: UM’s Department of Social Work Field Instructor of the Year
Every year, the University of Montana’s School of Social Work recognizes two outstanding Field Supervisors – one BSW and one MSW-nominated supervisor – and this year, the Poverello’s very own Jill Bonny, Director of Veteran Services and Practicum Student Administrator, won the award for Masters of Social Worker Agency Field Instructor of the Year. Jill has been awarded the honor based on the following criteria:
- Provides exceptional mentorship of practicum students
- Models professional social work behavior in practice and in supervision
- Devoted to teaching and demonstrates ongoing professional development
- Dedicated to and proud of being a social worker
- Demonstrates critical, independent thinking and encourages students to develop these skills
On behalf of the Poverello and the Pov’s Practicum Students, CONGRATS, Jill!
A Letter from the Executive Director
I want to start by expressing my profound gratitude to everyone who has supported the Poverello Center over the past several months. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on the work that we do and the community members we serve. We would not have been able to make the changes that we made without the support of the hundreds of individuals, businesses, and organizations who made financial contributions to the Pov over the past several months. Thank you!
I am also tremendously proud of our team here at the Poverello Center, as well as all our partners in the community for how quickly and creatively we moved to protect the health of our most vulnerable neighbors here in Missoula. Because of our collective work, Missoula has one of the lowest per capita rates of COVID-19 infections in the country, and we were even featured on a Department of Housing and Urban Development webinar on best practices to protect people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19.
That said, there is still a lot more we need to get done. It is getting warmer and warmer outside but now all I seem to be doing is talking about the winter. Unfortunately, there is a really important reason that we have been having long meetings with community partners about the cold winter months. As a community, we need to come up with an answer to this simple, yet incredibly complex question; how do we make sure everyone in Missoula has a warm place to be this winter, while also practicing social distancing to protect them from COVID-19?
Early on in the pandemic, the Poverello Center made three important changes to our procedures to keep our guests safe from COVID-19. First, we started closing our building for periods of the day so that we can do a deep clean and sanitation of high traffic areas. Secondly, we reduced the number of people who could be in the dining room during mealtime so that people could spread out. And finally, we reorganized our sleeping space to make sure everyone was sleeping at least 6 feet away from each other. This cuts our overnight capacity to 98 people.
We have to be honest, there have been consequences to these changes. Right now we have a record number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Missoula. As you drive around Missoula I am sure you are seeing people living on the streets in many places. We are hiring extra Outreach Workers to engage with these individuals but it will still be harder for people to access services when they are unsheltered.
Those consequences will get that much harder when the cold weather sets in this Fall and Winter. If we maintain social distancing protocols we will only have space for 130 people this winter with the current facilities available to us. During a cold winter, we anticipate we will need space for at least 230 people.
We need to act now to make sure we are not forced into a position this winter where we are having to decide between people freezing to death outside or catching COVID-19 inside. The Poverello Center is working hard with community leaders to come up with a plan. However, there are no easy solutions and all options are likely to be costly.
There are two things you can do now to help figure this out. Contact your local elected officials and let them know you think it’s important to have a COVID plan for our neighbors experiencing homelessness this winter in place is a priority. We are working closely with them but it helps for them to know it is a community priority.
Second, if it is within your means, please consider making an additional donation to the Poverello Center. Many donors have been making a special donation to help us during this time while committing to make their annual donation as well. We could use that extra support right now. Any solution we come up with for COVID Winter Shelter will be costly.
Thank you again for all you do to support the Poverello as we provide food, shelter, help and hope to all who ask.