Tim Lloyd, the chronically homeless man who died of hypothermia last month under the Northside pedestrian bridge, was nearly a success story for a city that’s trying to get serious about reducing homelessness.

A week before he died, Lloyd, 61, obtained a specialized housing voucher for homeless individuals with disabilities. The voucher enabled Lloyd to begin searching for an apartment on the private market while also receiving support services.

Even so, Lloyd had spent years on the street without applying for the voucher, according to the Missoula Housing Authority, which operates the longstanding federally funded program. But in June, a coalition of agencies under the banner of Missoula’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness rolled out an effort designed to reach people in Lloyd’s situation and help them attain housing more quickly.

It wasn’t quick enough for Lloyd, whose death, providers say, shows why they have to work together—and what’s at stake if the city doesn’t make progress on its 10-year plan.

Missoula had one of the state’s largest homeless populations in 2012, when the city finalized its plan to end homelessness by 2022, according to state point-in-time survey data. At the plan’s halfway mark, the effort has yet to show tangible results. The number of chronically homeless people, in particular, “hasn’t budged,” Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams says.

There are many reasons. One is that, in addition to well-known gaps in services, available services have been disjointedly administered. Homeless individuals had to navigate separate offices and applications just to place their name at the bottom of wait lists.

The new approach, known as “coordinated entry,” changes the process in two major ways: It streamlines how agencies identify homeless individuals and prioritizes who receives services based on need. Providers liken it to an emergency room model: Everyone comes through the same front door, is triaged, and then placed on a master list according to how urgently they need housing.

homeless graph

Point-in-time survey estimates suggest that homelessness in Missoula is beginning to decline, but a city-wide effort launched in June to connect homeless individuals with housing services has already identified larger numbers.

Coordinated entry systems are not unique to Missoula. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently started requiring that its grantees adopt the approach. The change can be frustrating for providers at first, Williams says, since the individuals who now get priority are often the most challenging and take the most time to help.

“The old thinking was, ‘Why would I waste my time working with someone that’s not ready, or they’re choosing [to be homeless], when I have someone who’s ready right here?’” Williams says.

By prioritizing the most vulnerable for housing, even as they’re frequently dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues, Missoula could also save money. A recent study in Bozeman found that eight chronically homeless people each incurred an average of $28,000 in public-private expenses annually. Once they were housed, their healthcare costs dropped by 73 percent.

Homeless individuals can now enter the system via the YWCA, the Salvation Army and the Poverello Center, and they are assisted through the process by “housing navigators.” Improved coordinated outreach since June has led to a better sense of the scope of homelessness in Missoula. The coordinated entry list is already larger than the 344 identified as homeless by the most recent HUD-mandated point-in-time survey, according to Williams. “We’re seeing collectively how big the issue is,” she says.

Yet available resources remain largely the same. The coordinated entry system has a goal of placing clients in housing within 90 days, but housing navigators can’t accomplish that without more housing options, more support services and more funding.

“It’s frustrating, because we don’t have options,” says Julie Clark, adult social services coordinator at the Salvation Army.

But coordinated entry is a first step. Clark placed her first client in permanent supportive housing—the program Lloyd had been approved for—in the fall. Clark says the woman was assessed on June 21 and received one of the system’s highest vulnerability scores. She received a voucher on Aug. 15, and was able to move into an apartment on Oct.10.

Clark says without the “handholding” offered through the new system, the woman would almost certainly still be living out of cars or tents.

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