From Missoula, an in-the-trenches look at homelessness

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Workers clean up a transient encampment last year along the Kim Williams trail in Missoula.

My name is Travis Mateer and for the past seven years I’ve worked at the Poverello Center, an emergency shelter and soup kitchen in Missoula.

When I started at “the Pov” in 2008, our nation’s economy wasn’t doing so well. The unsound lending practices of the big banks resulted in a housing bubble that caused significant economic misery when it burst. Ripple effects, like a decreased demand for timber, closed local mills and put people out of work. Shelters across the country struggled to meet the increased need.

In Missoula the most visible subset of the homeless population—the chronically homeless—received much of the media attention as city leaders and downtown businesses discussed how to address this group, often referred to as “transients.”

While those experiencing chronic homelessness made up just 11 percent of the overall homeless population, according to a 2010 needs assessment, their disproportionate impact on city services and other local resources was made all the more critical by the financial crisis.

None of this was on my radar when I moved to Missoula in 2000 to finish school. If I was downtown having fun, I wouldn’t think twice about donating my spare change to someone panhandling.

Why would I think twice? I wasn’t the ambulance driver responding for the fifth time that day to the same person, or an ER nurse waiting 20 hours for the chronic homeless guy to sober up before getting assessed by a mental health professional because he claimed he was suicidal when first responders brought him in.

I wasn’t the motel manager dealing with the belligerent drunk in Room 145 who got enough spare change downtown to buy four Steel Reserves after blowing half his disability check on the weekly room he is now getting kicked out of. And I wasn’t the police officer responding to the guy with no legs sitting in a fecal-smeared wheelchair because he left against medical advice from the nursing home and they won’t let him come back.

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Now, fast-forward to 2011. After an unsuccessful effort at running a daytime drop-in center in Missoula, the Pov launched the H.O.T. (Homeless Outreach Team) Program in June of 2011. Instead of trying to maintain a costly space that people had to come to in order to receive services, we shifted gears and started meeting people where they were at. A big part of this program entails operating a HOT line during business hours, a service I describe to our community partners as an alternative to 911 for nuisance behavior related to chronic homelessness.

After five years coordinating this program, I made the difficult decision to leave my position last month. I feel good about the working relationships I’ve helped establish with law enforcement, the hospitals, the county detention facility and other agencies and service providers, like the Health Department and Clark Fork Coalition.

What I don’t feel good about is the continuing challenge of dealing with big societal issues like addiction and mental illness.

I have been impressed watching how the Billings community responded to the tragic death of Michael Sample, murdered downtown in 2014 by a young man on meth. I can tell Last Best News readers that on this side of the continental divide, city leaders are very interested in what Billings is doing.

I was able to sit in on a conference call last year and it’s clear there are some great people in Billings working hard on solutions, people like Lisa Harmon of the Downtown Billings Alliance, Officers Matt Lennick and Tony Nichols with Billings Police Department, and Joel Simpson, a licensed addiction counselor with the Rimrock treatment center.

Unfortunately, Missoula is playing catch-up with some critical infrastructure and service gaps that make doing what Billings is doing not possible here, at least not yet. We don’t have a 24-hour drop-in center to alleviate the overuse of the ER and jail and we don’t have the ability to medically detox people unless they are presenting as suicidal.

For a community that likes to see itself as progressive, when it comes to addressing chronic homelessness, we are stuck with regressive systems that produce terrible outcomes at insanely high costs.

For me, the cost has been burnout. I would not change any of the experiences I’ve had with this job, but it has taken a toll on me and my family. I have seen and experienced just a small portion of the violence that comes with drug and alcohol abuse and it has changed the way I see both the town in which I live and the politics that it operates by.

We have some serious problems in Missoula and, speaking just for myself, the glacial rate at which we seem to be addressing these problems is not adequate. I hope it doesn’t take a tragedy to get more people in Missoula to share the sense of urgency already being felt by first responders.

As I take a step away from this work, others will step in to continue it. They won’t do it to get headlines or advance their political careers, and they certainly won’t do it for the paycheck. They will do it because the need is not something they can ignore.

To them I say thank you for continuing the fight because there is still much work to be done.

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