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Survey Shows Montana's Homeless Population Dropping

Chronic Homelessness by Region in Montana.
Courtesy Missoula Housing Authority
Chronic Homelessness by Region in Montana.

The first ever statewide conference on homelessness is happening in Helena today and tomorrow. More than 75 organizations from across Montana are meeting.

Jim McGrath, with the Missoula Housing Authority presented a graph showing some positive trend data about the number of homeless people here since 2005.

"And you can see that it has been declining somewhat over time," McGrath says.

The graph shows the homeless population peaking at around 2,000 people statewide in 2013. Last year, that number had dropped to less than 1,500.

Missoula continues to have the largest homeless population in the state, followed by Billings.

"Even though Missoula — the highest of those communities at 319 — is lower than it has been for several years. And similarly, Kalispell and Helena has been getting some gains, others kind of up and down," McGrath says.

Five-year Homelessness Trend for Montana's top five cities.
Credit Courtesy Missoula Housing Authority
Five-year Homelessness Trend for Montana's top five cities.

The numbers are based on an annual survey, where on a given night every January, communities across the country try to make contact with as many homeless people as they can find to get a snapshot of the homeless population. Inevitably, some are missed because homelessness can be episodic. People couch-surfing with friends or relatives might not get counted, and some people without housing want to stay under the radar.

McGrath says he’s concerned that Montana’s homeless population might go up when the next survey is done. That’s because last year’s state budget crisis resulted in big cuts to case management for people with mental health or disability challenges. Case managers are social workers who help people with tasks of daily living.

"I’ll use a very quick example from our housing authority: A public housing tenant had case management that was basically doing med management, reminding them to take their medicine. Case management went away, no one reminded them to take their medicine. Now they’re out of compliance with their lease, now it becomes an issue for their housing stability."

More than 170 people are at the homelessness summit, which organizers hope will give them a chance to better coordinate efforts and more successfully integrate organizations focused on housing with other social service providers. The summit continues through Tuesday.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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