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June 14, 2017

Topic: Research

Community deliberation houses homeless shelter in Missoula, Montana

Local opposition to the re-siting of the Poverello Center homeless shelter in Missoula, Montana, prompted a city-wide deliberation mediated by the Missoula chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI). Amie Thurber, facilitator and NCBI director at the time, shares lessons from designing and evaluating the process in ‘Housing a Homeless Shelter: A Case Study in Community Deliberation’.

Thurber highlights the importance of providing processes that help people find common ground to resolve community fractures. Describing the role of community deliberation in forging relationships between the agency and the neighbourhood, the author suggests continuing conversations around these deliberations to sustain this relationship in the long run.          

Reflecting on the four-phase deliberation process, Thurber describes its grounding in deliberative democracy theories, restorative justice practices, and Just Practice principles. The restorative justice approach, seeks to heal fractured relationships rather than assign blame, addressing the emotional aspect of the controversial re-siting, which helps  with relationship-building between stakeholders. Applying the Just Practice framework heightened the facilitating team’s awareness of how five interlocking elements – meaning, context, power, history, possibility – affected the issue.        

Drawing on experiences of creating and coordinating the project, Thurber identifies practical insights for community engagement and conflict resolution. She underlines the importance of a strong internal and external team to deliver a city-wide project. Offering multiple modes and opportunities for engagement, she finds, helped broaden participation and improve the credibility of the process. Designing the process to help people talk with one another rather than at one another presented opportunities for constructive intergroup dialogue and better understanding.

Despite the use of structural design and moderation to help equalize power between participants, power imbalances remained in play, she writes. This suggests a need for more formal opportunities for the least powerful to have their say. Correcting misinformed assumptions about poverty and homelessness required untangling facts from feelings, which, she notes, would require more time. In conclusion, Thurber calls for facilitators to take note of critiques from local activists who may be better placed to see power imbalances and limitations.


Amie Thurber is a doctoral candidate in the Community Research and Action program, Vanderbilt University, and a former executive director at NCBI Missoula (now EmpowerMT).

Photo: Dean Hochman/Flickr/cc