Missoula’s Homeless Outreach Team

by | Oct 4, 2011 | Uncategorized

Here is an attention-grabbing start for a story:

Instead of shooing away the homeless, Missoula is now finding help for them — for their betterment and the health of downtown’s businesses.

Whatever they’re doing in Missoula, MT, it sounds like a win-win situation, if ever there was one. But how can this be? People experiencing homelessness and downtown merchants — where do their interests coincide? Before returning to that Jamie Kelly story in The Missoulian, let’s backtrack to June and let Jenna Cederberg (also of The Missoulian) explain how the Homeless Outreach Team started.

She wrote,

Members of the Homeless Outreach Team hit the streets Friday, and will work throughout the summer to provide real-time street intervention with people, often the chronically homeless, who cause disruptions and are resistant to traditional shelter services. …the Poverello Center is coordinating the effort and will have trained volunteer teams on the street during daylight hours and at community events throughout the summer. An on-the-street presence will help build relationships with the chronically homeless and encourage them to seek available help that can improve their lives…

This all happened due to the combined efforts of the Poverello Center and the police department, as well as social-service agencies and, of course, downtown business people. United Way of Missoula County gave $10,000 and the Business Improvement District gave $13,000. There is also a connection with something called “Real Change Not Spare Change,” which is a great name for a program.

The Homeless Outreach Team gave out packages of “socks, first aid supplies, food items and brochures,” and one of their aims was to prevent street incidents from escalating into law enforcement matters. Volunteers wore orange shirts with the Homeless Outreach Team hotline’s phone number prominently displayed, helpful not only to the homeless, but convenient for business owners, who could call in the on-duty intervention team.

The program yielded results, and, a few months later, Kelly reported on the speeches made by various business people, officials, and representatives of nonprofit organizations, at a celebration of the Homeless Outreach Team. Kelly summarized the presentations, describing how the program gave the homeless…

… options other than camping on downtown pavement and panhandling or harassing shoppers… That has been a consistent complaint of downtown businesses, who say such activity has not only warded off customers but also been encouraged by Missoula city policies regarding the homeless… The teams have made Missoula streets cleaner and safer while also steering Missoula’s homeless to much-needed services…

City policies were too kind to the homeless? It is a rather unusual complaint to hear, but apparently the sentiment was felt by many local residents before the political environment was improved by the success of the program.

In any city, downtown business district anecdotes can be harvested. However compassionate a store owner might be, or however much a supporter of helping the homeless, nobody likes to come to work in the morning and have to clean up a puddle of vomit in front of the door. Broken windows are a messy, expensive pain in the butt, and so on. A person can see where they’re coming from. Hopefully, such conflicts have been minimized by the new approach.

The story contains a hint of how it used to be. Local businessman Tim France, owner of Worden’s Market & Deli, is quoted as saying,

I can tell you my employees would give the greatest testimony for how good it’s been for them because we are on the front lines of this…

“Front lines” is war talk, and implies a certain amount of us-versus-them. Then again, France has a unique background, having spent six years as a county sheriff, mostly fighting the War on Some Drugs. In an interview conducted by Bob Zimorino, France said that when he bought the eatery, neighborhood people threatened to quit patronizing the place. According to rumor, he was probably still an undercover agent posing as a restaurateur. But it worked out all right, thanks to one of the legal drugs, and to Missoula being a college town.

A mention by Alex Sakariassen of the Missoula Independent says,

When he first bought Worden’s Market 30 years ago, France sold about 6,000 kegs annually. Whether it was fraternity rush parties or a night with the guys, ‘beer was the social lubricant.’ People just drank to drink, France says, end of story.

Along with other local businesses, Worden’s Market went on to initiate what became the annual Garden City BrewFest. This is one of the ironies of urban life everywhere. The very basis of many downtown businesses, i.e. alcohol, is also the substance responsible for the downfall of some of the homeless people who present such a challenging obstacle to downtown businesses.

But, of course, no central city is entirely made up of nightclubs, restaurants, and liquor stores. Often, the public library is a source of friction between city residents and people experiencing homelessness. This happened here, as Kelly reported:

Honore Gray, director of the Missoula Public Library, said she and her staff have noticed a precipitous decline in disruptions in and outside the library, where many homeless people routinely gather. Instead of calling 9-1-1 constantly, ‘We’re now able to call Homeless Outreach Teams,’ she said. ‘They make a very positive impact with the at-risk population. They’re able to curb questionable behavior before we have to deal with it in a library situation.’

The situation in any city American city could be improved by adoption of the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.


Source: “Homeless outreach program working downtown, speakers say,” Missoulian.com, 09/28/11
Source: “New team reaching out to homeless in downtown Missoula,” Missoulian.com, 06/17/11
Source: “Missoula Restaurant Owners and Chefs: Tim France of Worden’s Market,” MakeItMissoula.com, 07/18/11
Source: “Missoula and beer: A history,” Missoula Independent, 04/20/10
Image by elias_daniel (Elias Gayles), used under its Creative Commons license.