A stalled expansion effort by the Missoula 3:16 Rescue Mission, which has been seeking a home for its residential program for homeless men, is vexing neighbors, government officials, mission representatives and clients alike. And while it’s easy to laud efforts to help the homeless, questions about the mission’s location and how it should be regulated have become increasingly thorny, with two distinct sets of concerns—one originating in the neighborhood, another coming from city hall—yet to be settled.
At the end of February, Missoula 3:16 began remodeling an old grocery store at the corner of Toole Avenue and Scott Street with the aim of transforming it into quarters for its Men’s Life Regeneration Program, a yearlong program that houses a handful of homeless men while helping them develop the skills to rejoin society. To ensure the project’s viability, the mission purchased the building only after securing a city building permit, says Missoula 3:16 Director Cassie Sorenson.
But soon after construction began, when concerned neighbors began questioning what kind of oversight the mission would have, city officials took a closer look at Missoula 3:16’s permit. And after a few weeks of confusion, during which Missoula 3:16 halted construction, the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) revoked the mission’s zoning and building permits April 21.
“I just think the city’s put us in an awful position. We didn’t purchase the building, start plans or do anything until we had a valid permit in our hand,” Sorenson says. “Now we have a building that we can’t put anything into and $15,000 invested in our construction.”
But Sorenson isn’t the only one in an awkward position.
Missoula 3:16 applied for its permits as a “community residential facility,” a state-defined and -regulated designation. Consequently, OPG told Missoula 3:16 to work with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services to ascertain whether it met appropriate requirements. Licensure Bureau Chief Roy Kemp assured Sorenson in writing that Missoula 3:16 qualified as a halfway house, one of the community residential facility categories. Based on Kemp’s information, OPG granted Missoula 3:16 a zoning permit and the project moved ahead.
But problems cropped up when neighbors started asking questions. They wanted to know what activities would take place at the new center, how participants in Missoula 3:16’s program would be screened and monitored, and whether staff were qualified to handle addiction issues.
When the city further consulted Kemp to clarify such issues, Kemp discovered that the state rules governing halfway houses had been repealed, thus his department has no authority or method for licensing Missoula 3:16 as such.
Once OPG realized its grounds for issuing the permit had dissolved—and that the mission might therefore not meet zoning requirements—the city had no choice but to put a hold on Missoula 3:16’s progress.
“The bottom line here is that they have to be compliant with the law,” says Mike Barton, OPG senior planner. “There was an error made here, but that doesn’t then excuse us from upholding the law.”
While OPG and the state have established that Missoula 3:16 doesn’t qualify as a community residential facility, the burning question now is what, exactly, it does qualify as, and whether it meets neighborhood zoning.
Sorenson says she doesn’t understand why the burden should be on the mission to obtain a new permit, but City Attorney Jim Nugent says the city can’t help the fact that Missoula 3:16 applied under a designation whose qualifications it doesn’t meet, though he acknowledges that the state’s mistake and subsequent city approval compounds the problem.
“It’s a tangled mess right now,” Nugent says.
Missoula 3:16 and Mayor John Engen, along with Nugent and OPG, plan to meet mid-May to chart their next steps.
The neighborhood has a different—though intersecting—set of concerns, which residents discussed April 27 at a Northside/Westside Confederated Neighborhood Council meeting where 35 people turned up to air their reservations. Essentially, neighbors worry that Missoula 3:16 will invite dangerous men into the neighborhood without providing adequate safeguards. The mission’s day center, where 30 to 70 homeless people find shelter, food and encouragement each day, has been located at 506B Toole Ave. for five years, and neighbors cite poor experiences with its clients as cause for concern about a second facility.
Sorenson told neighbors at the meeting that the Life Regeneration Program is fundamentally different than the day center: Eight men would enroll in a yearlong program where they would live onsite and attend classes in subjects like bible study, time management, résumé development and anger management before receiving help securing jobs and homes. The program has already been running for three years out of an undisclosed Northside apartment, she said, and has graduated about five men. Close supervision, random drug tests and the threat of being kicked out of the program ensure cooperation and safety, Sorenson said.
Neighbors say they’re particularly concerned about drug and alcohol addiction issues and question whether Missoula 3:16’s staff, who aren’t medically trained, are qualified to run the facility. Some, like Heidi Boehm, said she’d be more comfortable if the mission were regulated, but Sorenson says she’s averse to 3:16 becoming a licensed drug and alcohol facility because “while that may be part of what we’re doing, it’s not a crux of our activity.”
Many residents question why Sorenson wants to open the mission in their neighborhood, to which Sorenson responds that “Part of their learning not to be chronically homeless is learning how to be a good neighbor, how to be a productive, independent citizen.”
Matt Peters, 28, who’s completed two-thirds of the Life Regeneration Program after being a homeless alcoholic for about 12 years, says Missoula 3:16 has helped him turn his life around. He wishes neighbors could look beyond their fears and stereotypes about homeless people to realize that Missoula 3:16 is helping resolve—not increase—homeless issues in Missoula.
But while neighbors seem to roundly agree that the program is positive, many aren’t yet convinced that its location in their neighborhood is a good thing.
Regardless of neighborhood concerns, practical questions of zoning and city approval come first, and remain far from answered.
“We’re all about being good neighbors, but we can’t be good neighbors when we can’t find a spot to fit in,” Sorenson says. “We just feel stuck in every which way.”