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More Rentals Needed To House Missoula's Homeless

United Way of Missoula County CEO, Susan Hay Patrick.
Edward O'Brien

Dozens of homeless Missoulians are now pre-qualified for a federal rental assistance program. The problem is, there’s a dearth of available rentals in Missoula’s red-hot housing market.

Single mom Julie Barrett and her three kids were very familiar with the problem. They were homeless for over a year. That changed in December after Barrett enrolled her family in what’s called a Shelter Plus Care rental voucher. That decision landed the Barrett’s a new rental home this past December.

"Tell you what, December 15th was a life-changing experience for me and my children. I didn’t tell them. I just had the keys and said, 'Hey, we’re going to go visit a friend.' We walked into this empty house and my kids were like, 'What is going on?' I was like, 'Your rooms are upstairs!'"

Getting that rental didn’t happen overnight. Barrett had to meet lots of qualifications and jumped through plenty of hoops to make it happen. But she says, "If it wasn't for this program we would still be homeless. That struggle … it was really, really a blessing," Barrett says.

A new campaign kicked off Tuesday hoping to replicate the Barrett family’s success with 40 other homeless individuals or families in as many days. Forty is the number of vouchers the local housing authority has in hand and have been claimed by local people in need of permanent housing.

Non-profit service groups are ready to help eligible clients navigate their way through the bureaucracy, but there’s a big problem. Finding available and affordable housing of any kind in Missoula has never been more challenging. Rental housing vacancy rates stand at roughly 3 percent. The local homeless rate, meanwhile,  is at a three year high.

Low income advocates say they can’t build their way out of this problem.

"'March Home: 40 Homes in 40 Days’ is a great illustration of how the three legged-stool of government, business and non-profits can support ending homelessness," says United Way of Missoula County CEO Susan Hay Patrick.

Here’s how the program works: the Missoula Housing Authority directly pays rent to landlords and property management companies. Those landlords get a double deposit and a vacancy payment in case the renter moves without warning.

If a tenant damages property, the program can cover up to one month’s rent. What’s more, those tenants will be assisted by a variety of supportive services provided by local non-profits, including lessons on how to be a good tenant, as well as financial and general life skills.

The way Missoula Housing Authority’s Jim McGrath sees it, it’s a win-win for both the renters as well as landlords and property managers.

"It’s a pretty secure thing, much more so than someone who doesn’t have a rental assistance voucher. It’s a hot market, you can rent to people, but it’s actually a more secure rental in a lot of ways," he says.

What if rental housing was found for all 40 of the homeless people and families who’ve pre-qualified and are waiting for federal rental assistance?

"I mean, that would be pretty big," McGrath says. "But, I know that we have other folks that are experiencing homelessness. It’s not like it would in and of itself, do away with it, but it would be, it would be cool. I’ll leave it at that."

The March Home program is one component of Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.  The city is six years into that effort, which doesn’t really aim to completely eliminate homelessness, as much as it hopes to ensure bouts of homelessness are rare, brief and non-recurring.

Landlords interested in participating in March Home can contact the Missoula Housing Authority.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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