Missoulians Ask City and Police Hard Questions About Shelter
Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - At the public meeting Tuesday evening at the Franklin School gymnasium, officials with city government and the Missoula Police Department faced difficult questions from among nearly two hundred parents, homeowners, and residents regarding the Johnson Street Shelter.
Mayor Hess kicked off the meeting by stating that he and his staff want to do a better job of operating the shelter and that it is not a ‘desirable use’ of the space.
Mayor Hess said 'We Are Here to Listen' at Tuesday Night's Public Meeting
“I am primarily here to listen,” began Mayor Hess. “I have a number of staff people here who are primarily here to listen, and we are here to understand your concerns. We're here to answer your questions. We're here to take your ideas to react to those and to do a better job of operating the shelter than we have in the past. I fully understand that this is not a desirable use for the Johnson Street Shelter. I stand here before you knowing that and I fully expect that you have concerns that you want to tell us and I stand here before you doing that as well.”
The mayor was asked specifically how many homeless persons are currently in Missoula, and his Houseless Programs Manager, Emily Armstrong provided the most up-to-date numbers.
Does the Number of Homeless Persons in Missoula (as many as 750) Alarm You?
“The number is approximately 620,” she said. “That number is fluid, it changes day to day. On average we typically have anywhere between 600 to 750 in Missoula, just given the fluid nature of the issue. So that's where we stand right now its turning on and off over the years. And what we're seeing right now is very reflective of what we're seeing across the whole country.”
Perhaps the official who took the most heat at Tuesday evening’s meeting was Missoula Police Chief Mike Colyer, who attempted to explain the priority policy of responding to 9-1-1 calls. Chief Colyer encouraged those in the crowd to call 9-1-1 if they witness criminal activity, but their call could be bumped to the back of the line.
Police Chief Colyer took Heat about Prioritizing 9-1-1 Calls
“Okay, if you see somebody that is in peril; somebody that you believe could be subject to a public safety risk or if you are in some type of harm's way, call 9-1-1. If you see conduct that you believe is criminal conduct, call 911. If you believe you have witnessed criminal conduct or any suspicious activity and you'd like somebody to check it, then call 911. As I mentioned earlier, these are going to get prioritized as a suspicious activity call unless you're really lucky and have an officer who is available, it is not going to be the highest priority, but it will get dispatched eventually.”
That response drew an angry comment from a mother who said she couldn’t take her children to the (Montana Rail Link) park because there were used drug needles all over the ground, fecal matter, or other dangers due to the homeless individuals in the area.
Some in the crowd attempted to talk over the presenters and interrupted those who were called upon to ask questions by the moderator.
Responding to why the city is focusing so much attention on the issue of homelessness, Mayor Hess also presented success stories of how some individuals were able to take advantage of the several programs offered by the city and other organizations, improve their lives, and exit the homeless population.
“We’ve had some really successful programs through the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space (TSOS), which is a good example of a program that provides shelter and also provides wraparound services,” he said. “What has happened is that when people are accessing that shelter, they also have access to these other services and a substantial number of people in that program have been able to lift themselves out of homelessness because they had access to other services. About 46 percent of the TSOS participants have done so.”
The City Council will continue to address the topics of the Johnson Street Shelter and homelessness in future meetings.