It took about 20 minutes just to get through introductions at a Jan. 23 forum on the work being done to end homelessness in Missoula. The panel’s size — a dozen representatives from public agencies and private service providers — reflected how the city’s most at-risk population is now approached as “one caseload” to be assisted collaboratively.

The discussion focused on the city’s new coordinated entry system, which prioritizes services — ideally, housing — to individuals who have the highest need, rather those those who just happen to seek help first. Panelists from organizations including Partnership Health Center, Missoula Police and the Poverello agreed that the approach is already producing results, saying that when a chronically homeless person disappears off downtown’s streets today, they’re just as likely to have found housing as to have perished from the elements. That wasn’t always the case.

But simply working together isn’t enough to keep everyone warm, or to reach the city’s goal of “functional zero,” where more homeless individuals are housed than land homeless on the streets. Attaining that goal will require more housing available to people with baggage, whether it be a criminal history, poor rental history, bad credit, substance abuse or mental health issues.

The city’s homelessness plan calls for what’s known as a Housing First approach.

“Whereas many models of housing the homeless require abstinence from any mood-altering substance in exchange for housing,” the 2010 report underpinning the homelessness plan states, “Housing First does the opposite by providing permanent housing and then a variety of services to promote housing stability and individual health and well being.”

Mary Jane Nealon, director of innovation at Partnership Health, argued at Tuesday’s panel that secure housing can be a crucial part of addressing a patient’s overall health. The new citywide system provides housing navigators to help homeless individuals obtain housing vouchers or find rentals on the open market, though Darren Ashby, of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, noted that most property management companies won’t rent to individuals with felonies, or who are on sexual or violent offender registries.

Plans to add more specialized housing in Missoula have yet to be proposed, and the one project that had been in the works seemed to fizzle this month.

Lori Davidson, executive director of the Missoula Housing Authority, got word this month that her agency’s application to add permanent supportive housing units was unsuccessful. MHA had sought $1.9 million from the state’s housing trust fund to build a 12-unit apartment complex behind its veterans-only project, Valor House. Unlike Valor House, the Cornerstone Apartments would not have required tenants to be substance free.

Davidson says she doesn’t know whether the agency will continue pursuing the project. She’s still trying to learn from state officials why the grant was turned away.

“It is disappointing,” she says. “We kind of thought this would be our best chance to get one of these grants.”

Staff Reporter

Staff reporter Derek Brouwer joined the Indy in 2015 after year-long stints covering education at the Billings Gazette and the Helena Independent Record. He graduated from Montana State University. Follow him on Twitter: @derekwbrouwer.

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