It’s a good question, and not that easy to answer...mainly because the population is so fluid, with people coming and going depending on the season, and much of the numbers we do have come from self-reporting, which might not always be the most accurate.
The homeless issue has exploded to the forefront of issues confronting Missoula.
In January, when the Reserve Street homeless camp was being cleaned-up again, it was figured that anywhere from 10 to 80 people were living there. Just over the past month, we’ve had 20 separate fires in that camp, requiring the fire department to come, and often necessitating the bridge being closed to traffic for a period of time.
When I visited the camp in 2018, I was told that 75 to 100 people were living there prior to the floods, and around 25 to 35 after.
In January 2019, the Missoulian listed 293 homeless individuals in Missoula, representing 23% of the state’s total homeless population.
In 2019, the Missoula Current listed the Missoula homeless population at 319, the highest among the ten Montana cities surveyed. That same year, NBC Montana listed the number at 400.
In 2020 before the pandemic hit, we had 1,545 homeless individuals across the state. That’s a lot better than in 2019, when we had 1,676 homeless people across the state, and 2018, too, when we had 2,060.
What’s interesting is that just 79 of these homeless folks were aged 18-24...the demographic we often complain about for being high and drunk all day while not wanting to work.
In reality, these young folks make up just 0.5% of the state’s homeless population.
Here’s a 2021 point-in-time survey of over 1,500 homeless folks, giving us an idea of their demographics.
The lowest number of homeless people the state ever had was in 2010, with 180. The highest was in 2014, with 585.
In Missoula, 39% of the homeless population had been living that way for a year or more.
In the early-2010s, it was figured that 37% of all the homeless in America were children. In 2012 in Missoula, we had 141 children under the age of 18 that were homeless in Missoula. I can’t find any more recent numbers for kids.
I’ve been writing about the Missoula homeless situation on this site for half a decade.
Back in 2017, I mentioned how the homeless population in the US actually fell 1% from 2009 to 2011...but here in Missoula, it increased by 48%.
You can find that figure in the city’s 48-page plan to end homelessness, which ran from 2012 to 2022.
Early in that 2012 document, the city admits that on any given night, there are around 200 homeless individuals in Missoula.
Now, nearly ten years later, and we know for a fact we have at least 400 homeless folks in this town.
That’s right, Missoula’s plan to end homelessness actually doubled the homeless population in this town.
I’m not surprised. Government is a big reason for the problem. The idea that they’ll turn around and fix the problem they helped create is silly.
And how did they help create it? By allowing the housing market to get wildly out of control, with no affordable houses for the people most vulnerable to becoming homeless.
“Missoula’s housing market is glutted with expensive homes, but more affordable housing is in desperately short supply, according to Jim McGrath of the Missoula Housing Authority,” which the 10-year plan tells us.
That was written way back in 2012, nearly ten years ago. During that time, the city and the county have only allowed the housing situation to get worse, primarily by hindering the amount of new homes and rental units that can be built.
Only in the past two months - since the mayor realized he’d have three challengers - has the city/county tried to revamp its archaic zoning and regulatory processes in regards to construction.
It’s not the homeless population of Missoula that drove this change; it’s our mayor’s thin-skin, and idea that he might be out of a job soon. He didn’t want to change; he was forced to.
Besides that small snippet from the Housing Authority, the 10-year-plan to end homelessness doesn’t really offer up that many solutions to the lack of housing.
Here’s one of the few others items I could find:
“Missoula must create more affordable housing and more housing that is affordable: Vacancy rates for Missoula are extremely low, in part because of students at the University of Montana. We need about 20 single-room occupancy units for the hardest to house, and we need additional rentals that people with low incomes can afford. Those single-room units could be created by acquisition of low-rent motels that could be converted to housing. Some of that housing should be modular homes to replace decrepit, inefficient trailers. Missoula must look at regulation and zoning that will increase the availability of affordable housing in existing neighborhoods. Having approximately 1,200 people on waiting lists for more affordable housing isn’t acceptable.”
We tried the hotel aspect, and I suspect the city will try to do more of this.
Mostly, the idea now is to build three new tent cities, which I’m sure will grow to six next year, then twelve the year after that. Remember, we started with one shelter, now we have three. We then went on to one tent city, now we’ll have three.
If you build it…
Here’s an example from 2012 that illustrates this point, and how non-profits in other communities use and abuse Missoula, (bold my own):
“A successful businessman with a college degree, Dave found himself homeless after losing a long fight with alcohol and depression while living in Bozeman. He crept around the Montana State University campus, sneaking into buildings at night to sleep before being caught and finally accepting a bus ticket to Missoula from the Salvation Army. The bus driver dropped him off at the corner of Orange and Spruce streets, and he walked a block to the Poverello Center.”
“There was strong belief that by providing services, Missoula attracts more homeless people and many communities, but especially Bozeman, bus people to Missoula because of the services provided…there was strong agreement that transients should be bused out of Missoula, and that Missoula should reduce the number of services provided and existing laws should be enforced, including the arrest of people who are homeless.”
Here’s a more ‘radical’ idea that Missoula could follow, but likely never will:
“A purely secular approach to homelessness will not solve the problem, particularly when it accompanies unbiblical ideologies. This is why a large part of Christensen’s success was based on the biblical principle that ‘If a man does not work, he shall not eat.’
This is very contrary to the Mayor of Missoula and County Commissioners’ concept of what it means to conquer homelessness.
Throwing government money at this issue is like curing cancer with a band-aid. More “programs” create more dependence, which creates the need for more programs, which creates the need for more dependence, and it never ends. If the goal is to guide homeless people into achieving independence and then becoming a true asset to the community in return, there must be a day-to-day system of accountability and the core issues must be addressed.
Missoula needs to bring all the conservative-minded true Bible-believing churches together and come up with a plan. A long-term set of goals. It takes a large team of committed followers of Christ to tackle the homeless population. And when churches see a definitive set of goals and plans towards these ends, they will gladly donate to the cause.”
You can’t make people change if they don’t want to, and enabling those folks is not helping us.
The truth is, housing is the only thing that will solve this problem. We have to build at all levels, for all incomes.
Right now, you might have someone in Missoula that wants to buy a $1 million house, but can only find a $750,000 home. Now the guy that wanted and could afford that home has to settle for a $500,000 home.
Take that and roll it all the way down, so you have tons of people that could buy anything they wanted, but can only buy up our ‘affordable homes’ because that’s all we have left.
Many figure that providing housing would save local governments a lot more money in the long-run. In LA in 2009, they did a study that found supporting housing costs were $605 a month compared to the costs of dealing with someone that’s homeless, which was $2,897 a month.
And how much do these tent cities cost us to run each month? How much is the monthly cost to keep running the Sleepy Inn, or the Johnson Street shelter?
Those numbers are hard to come by.
What seems true right now is that we have about 400 homeless folks in Missoula, and that only seems to be increasing.
The city currently has some plans to deal with this, but they really have no plans to stem the growing tide of homeless.
The city’s only plan is to deal with the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.