Crisis advocates call on Missoula County to impose utility tax on November ballot

Current Martin Kidston/Missoula

Saying the cost of caring for the city’s most vulnerable residents has become too onerous to cover with unpredictable funding, advocates on Tuesday called on Missoula County to consider imposing a crisis services tax on the ballot of November.

If approved and passed by voters, the funding would replace revenue from the US bailout and CARE laws. Funding from these programs has been used to start or invest in a number of programs, but is not long-term.

To replace that revenue, advocates are now asking for a Crisis Services Tax to provide a predictable $5 million a year to support a number of programs from mobile support to emergency winter shelters.

This, they said, would make Missoula a better and safer place.

“We have demonstrated through the use of these programs that we have had some success in addressing these critical issues,” said Levies advocate Shannon Flanagan. “We all benefit from mastering these issues through programs with proven results. We’ve heard anecdotal stories from outside Missoula in places like Seattle and Portland where they’ve taken what appears to be a more passive approach and had terrible results.

Over the past several years, the city and county, in partnership with local organizations, have invested millions of dollars to launch a number of programs aimed at homelessness, housing, domestic violence and intervention in the event of a crisis.

Stages have included a temporary safe outdoor space and a sanctioned homeless camp. The city and county have also invested in winter shelters, helped fund operations of the Poverello, and helped acquire low-income housing and properties to help shelter vulnerable populations.

They also launched a crisis response team, among other efforts. Proponents said the programs are paying off and need long-term funding to survive. They have set their goal of raising about $5 million a year through a crisis services tax.

“We have made tremendous progress over the past two years through programs supported by our public sector,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. “But supporting them without ARPA funds is too big a lift. We need public support to continue these programs. We all benefit when we live in a community where people are housed, have access to essential mental health services, and where people feel safe and receive justice.

According to information extracted from the state’s Homeless Management Information System earlier this year, approximately 619 individuals and families were identified as homeless in Missoula. The numbers included 96 veterans, 427 individuals and 72 families.

People aged 35 to 39 accounted for the largest number of homeless people, followed by those aged 40 to 44. About 73% were white, 16% were Native American, and 4.5% were black. The majority of them were men.

But the data also showed positives as 86 individuals and families were able to secure permanent housing between October and April. This remains one of the biggest challenges facing Missoula and its efforts to address homelessness.

“Rental costs have skyrocketed beyond what families and national survivors can afford,” said Cindy Weese, executive director of the Missoula YWCA. “The waiting list for subsidized housing assistance – which was once a lifeline for low-income families and survivors – is now five years long.”

The YWCA, which has been a partner in many local efforts, also provides services for survivors of domestic violence and emergency housing for families.

Weese said the organization’s own statistics suggest that 70% of homeless families in Missoula are led by a single mother and a survivor of domestic violence. The organization provided emergency transitional and permanent housing for more than 600 people, including 175 families and 300 homeless children, Weese said.

“Many live in such deep poverty that it is difficult for them to get the early and intensive care they need,” Weese said. “Without the means to effectively address these health issues, many homeless people and survivors of domestic violence will continue to struggle to find and maintain safe, permanent housing.”

Missoula County commissioners will open the public hearing on a possible ballot initiative this Thursday and will keep it open for a month. In August, they could consider a resolution backing the ballot measure.

If they do, voters would have the final say in November. In June, Missoula voters approved a levy increase to support Missoula Aging Services. The county may also consider placing a general bond bond on the ballot to support the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

“It’s the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” Weese said of a crisis services tax. “Investing in shelters and emergency services not only helps the most vulnerable members of our community, but also saves taxpayers money. People who are accommodated and supported are much less dependent on emergency services such as law enforcement and hospital emergency rooms.

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