Missoula city council moves to prohibit new homeless shelters

Without a shelter, a Missoula man is forced to stop being homeless.

Without a shelter, a Missoula man is forced to stop being homeless.

This morning, the Missoula city council is discussing an emergency measure to “prohibit new homeless shelters, soup kitchens and similar uses” until it can update municipal regulations. The emergency is that Union Gospel Mission—formerly the 3:16 Mission—has leased the old Sweetheart Bakery building on West Broadway. That’s how it appears, anyway. Councilman Adam Hertz insists the measure is “not necessarily geared at one entity,” even though the proposal would take effect retroactively and therefore block the mission’s plans to move. The important thing to remember, as the city council passes an emergency retroactive law to stop homeless shelters, is that they’re all committed to helping the homeless.

Council members cannot stress that last point enough. I quote the Missoulian:

“This is really about creating the mechanism of a public process because these uses are pretty intense and can have a pretty big impact on a residential neighborhood that’s immediately adjacent,” said Wolken, who stressed she supports the city’s plan to end homelessness.

See? It’s right there in her indirect quote. I’ve written about the city’s plan to end homelessness before. In addition to underestimating the number of street people in Missoula, it declares early that the best way to end homelessness is to build new houses, which should give you an idea of which members of the community were involved in drafting it.

Hertz and Wolken’s complaint is that community members were not sufficiently involved in Union Gospel’s plan to move. City law does not require that the mission get neighborhood approval—hence this morning’s emergency session—but proponents of the ban are pinning their argument on the lack of community input. City Attorney Jim Nugent opined that Union Gospel “brought it on themselves” by not meeting with neighborhood groups. He added:

They’re (councilors are) quite frustrated that these people won’t work with them. They won’t talk to them. They’ve got all these constituents clamoring about their concerns of having a (nonprofit) serving the people the Pov allegedly won’t serve because they’re drunk.

At least he remembered to say “allegedly.” Nugent is the least subtle in implying that it’s okay to ban soup kitchens because homeless people suck, but the same claim echoes whenever proponents talk about the ban.

Hertz points out that business owners need conditional use permits for gas stations and car washes. “But you don’t for a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen,” he says, “which I think neighbors would say has a bigger impact than a lot of those uses, or has the potential to have a bigger impact.”

He’s right. A homeless shelter does have a bigger impact than a gas station; one increases auto traffic and makes a bunch of money for a private owner, while the other increases foot traffic and performs a free service for the community. That’s an oversimplification, of course. Anyone who has lived near the current 3:16 Mission knows it attracts a lot of bums. But having to look at homeless people is a relatively low price to pay for social services that come at no cost to the city or its taxpayers.

The city council isn’t passing a retroactive law to shut down a gas station. They’re shutting down a homeless shelter, and they’re doing it for no reason other than to satisfy the complaints of homeowners who feel an empty warehouse is better for their property values than a charity.

Certainly, they are right. Just as certainly, that kind of calculus is ethically repellent. What kind of “community voice” would deny another human being a place to sleep because it might lower the resale value of the house he already owns?

The answer is an ordinary person, pretty much. Every neighborhood meeting in history decided that the homeless shelter should be somewhere else. It’s natural for people to be selfish in that way, but it is reprehensible for the city council to encourage it.

We elected these people to transcend not-in-my-backyard politics. The whole point of city government is to help us function as a community, not to give the strength of law to neighborhood prejudices. The Union Gospel Mission provides a much-needed service to the community, and they demand no resources from the city or its residents to do it. We should not make their failure to ask our permission a pretext to shut them down, because they never asked for our help, either.

I’m disappointed that so many people on the west side want to stop a homeless shelter, but I’m not surprised. I am a little surprised that the city council took unprecedented steps to deny services to the weakest among us, though. This morning, our elected representatives are holding an emergency meeting to make it illegal to start new projects to help the homeless. I thought they took their offices more seriously than that.

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  1. I’m glad you grounded your disappointment in the ordinary person. Too bad you expect more from the ordinary person when he or she becomes a city councilor.

  2. Dan,

    You’ve blatantly mischaracterized the proposal introduced by Cynthia Wolken and myself. I don’t blame you for that, considering that the Missoulian also ran with their own narrative regarding the situational circumstances that brought our proposal about. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the lack of communication from the Union Gospel Mission – it’s actually what I expected from them given their track record. They ignore neighborhood and community concerns in their current location and they simply feed folks, close up shop, and turn a blind eye to the portion of people they serve who are loitering, drinking, using drugs, fighting, urinating, defecating and engaging in various criminal acts at and around their location.

    The work the UGM does is much needed, and I applaud them for it. However, it’s reasonable that the city be able to approve a new location and attach conditions to the approval so that rather than receiving a deluge of broken promises from the UGM, the community has a legal contract with the UGM that states they WILL respond to specific neighborhood concerns and attempt to mitigate impacts or their use permit will be revoked and they’ll have to find a new location. Surely, you would agree that this vulnerable population is better served by receiving attention during the day rather than fed, kicked out, and left to wander the neighborhood. As to the “retroactive” piece, the UGM has not submitted an application for a change of use permit.

    The lack of any mention of these types of social services in Missoula’s zoning ordinance is a major hole in the ordinance that needs to be fixed through reasonable regulation – the same regulation that a check cashing service, day labor employment agency, carwash, gas station, fraternity, and a whole host of other uses would be required to have in many of our commercial zoning districts. A conditional use application will not necessarily be denied – that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to be able to attach reasonable conditions to try and mitigate neighborhood impacts including increased parking, building a fence, or requiring a lawn so that those the UGM serves will not loiter at playgrounds, schools, or parks. This is a land use discussion, not a social services discussion. Hyperbole may draw people to your blog and make you feel good about the amount of web traffic you’re getting, but it does nothing for the public safety, health and welfare of our community.

    Thank you,

    Adam Hertz

  3. “This is a land use discussion, not a social services discussion.”

    That seems to be Dan’s point as well. So why aren’t social services part of the discussion?

  4. Criticizing opinion deemed “hyperbole” may alleviate the pain of those stung by public discourse, but it doesn’t feed anyone.

    As a colleague said not too long ago, “We need something a little more concrete.”

    Mr.Hertz’s comment lacks any mention of how, what, when, and where the homeless will be served, if the UGM project is prohibited before it gets under way. It would be refreshing to read where some proposed “new location” might be, and which parts of theoretically superior “attention during the day” will be implemented before the snow flies.

    Fortunately, while elected officials propose discussions regarding fencing and parking spaces, those who seek to “merely feed people” are busy making sandwiches.

  5. Mr. Hertz’ comment strikes me as misdirected:

    “Surely, you would agree that this vulnerable population is better served by receiving attention during the day rather than fed, kicked out, and left to wander the neighborhood.”

    Yes, I would agree. Where is your action to make this ideal scenario a reality? I’ll take the UGM providing the evening meal services they can over the nothing alternative.

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