For the first time in nearly ten years, Jordan Hess no longer has to worry about the dynamics on the Missoula City Council. Or, navigating the emotional leadership transition after the unexpected passing of former Mayor John Engen.

But that doesn't mean he's tamping down his characteristic community enthusiasm. And he's confident of Missoula's future, even facing tough issues like affordable housing and the homeless.

As the most experienced elected official at the heart of Missoula city government until stepping aside Monday, Jordan Hess had seen a lot. From the difficult legal battle over Mountain Water to coping with COVID, Hess had a front-row seat.

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But in his final exclusive interview with me, Hess was candid about the successes, and failures, of dealing with Missoula's growing homeless problem, where he always tried to remember what it would be like to not have the surety of a shelter.

"And so I've tried to have that be a guiding principle. We have people in our community who need help. Who we need to take care of," Hess stressed.

Former Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess; Dennis Bragg photo
Former Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess; Dennis Bragg photo
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Some Missoula homeless ideas didn't work

Hess admits not everything has worked, including the effort for a more permanent "camp" following the pandemic.

"It was problematic. It was an area of crime. It was. There were safety issues. It didn't provide outcomes in terms of a pathway out of homelessness."

Hess does believe the city has learned and progressed with the Johnson Street temporary shelter, an idea that came out of a desperate meeting before a bitter cold snap.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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Johnson Street Shelter has "saved lives"

"Realistically, at a day where it's below 0, that shelter is really about saving lives and that is, you know, that sounds like a low bar for success. But that is the primary goal is making sure that that we don't have people die of exposure to the elements," Hess said, reflecting on his emergency declaration last summer.

"We have significantly fewer concerns and complaints from the neighborhood we have in, you know. In general, the service is operating a lot better than it has in the past.

A problem years in the making

Hess believes the core of homeless issues began when federal mental health funds were reduced in the 1980s, and when the Montana Legislature cut back case management.

"Those seeds that were sown in the 2017 Legislature bearing fruit now. And we have people in homelessness because of the actions of the legislature."

Hess believes Missoula will continue to fight the problem, although he's hopeful a new ordinance in '24 will help the city re-assert its ability to enforce rules over urban camping.

"The structure we need to take is relatively simple, which is that you have services that are evidence-based that help people get a hand up and then the other piece is that you have to have some accountability for problematic behavior. And we need to have a very compassionate approach to getting people into services."

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Gallery Credit: Dennis Bragg

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