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Revamped shelter in Browning offers temporary housing for people and their pets

Lynette Lunak works at the Blackfeet Medicine Bear Shelter in Browning, MT.
Kathleen Shannon
/
University of Montana School of Journalism
Lynette Lunak works at the Blackfeet Medicine Bear Shelter in Browning, MT.

The Blackfeet Nation hasn’t had a shelter available as temporary housing for almost a decade. That changed late last year.

The Medicine Bear Lodge has been serving hot meals twice a day just off Browning’s main road since 2012. The lodge shut down last summer for construction, and re-opened as the Blackfeet Medicine Bear Shelter last November with an updated setup: three trailers making a ‘U’ with two of them serving as separate wings for women and men. These trailers aren’t campers; they’re designed for housing at oil fields, and are often called “man camps.” They have fewer windows, more sharp corners, and fluorescent lights. The new lodge is a work in progress, and will serve as a temporary housing shelter for the Blackfeet Nation.

“This is what the rooms look like – we have a folding bed for like, if we get overcrowded,” said Mercedes Old Person, director of the shelter.

During a tour of the shelter’s day room, Old Person said they’re “trying to get a TV put in here for them to, if they don't want to be up there, they can be down here and watch TV and stuff.”

Last fall’s expansion had been a long time coming. Browning had a shelter in an old barracks building that opened in the 1970s. That shelter was actually started by Old Person’s father. It was condemned in 2012, though, because of environmental issues which included asbestos.

After her father died, Old Person was tapped to run the new soup kitchen and, eventually, expand it into housing. Old Person’s background had been in corrections, and she didn’t know much about running shelters. To figure out what works best, she toured other shelters in Montana.

“I was always just the detention officer,” she said. “I didn't, you know, know policies about homelessness and it's been a learning experience for me.”

The shelter received some gifts along the way. A visiting preacher donated money to expand the original bathroom to include a shower. The Blackfeet Housing Council set up an employee fund so Blackfeet Nation workers could donate parts of their paychecks. Old Person says one councilman donated $100 each pay period. Overall, the shelter made about $10,000 through gifts. Old Person also accepted an invitation to join other organizations under the umbrella of Blackfeet Manpower, an organization that offers job training to people on the reservation.

Old Person said that joining Blackfeet Manpower was “probably the best thing” she did. “They help us with staff, training,” she said.

One partnership, the organization Pets for Life, was key to the shelter’s recent expansion. They have an office in the back corner of the building. Pets for Life workers help distribute donations of cat and dog food to pet owners around town, and they work with vets to offer clinics.

“They came up and did a spay and neuter clinic,” Old Person said. ‘They saw what we were doing and one of the doctors came in and asked me what she could do to help us,” Old Person said. 

One of the doctors informed Old Person about a grant that came from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Through the grant, Medicine Bear Lodge got $80,000 to build housing for people who had pets. This spring, the shelter plans to install outdoor kennels for when the dogs need some fresh air.

Dog or no dog, there are rules around who can stay at the shelter. Old Person started directing the shelter after nearly 30 years working in a jail, and she runs a tight ship.

“It's for the adult males and adult females only,” she said. “That's what kind of shelter it is. But, a lot of people thought it was going to be for the families and all that and I just couldn't do that.”

Old Person chose an adults-only approach because she knows some people struggling with housing are also struggling with addiction. The shelter isn’t a medical facility, but the staff holds its residents accountable in a way that can support someone in recovery. Clients must come and go only through the front door. They strip their beds daily for laundry. If they spend a night elsewhere, they have to spend five days in Covid-19 isolation before they can walk around in the shelter.

“I have three here that are staying in the shelter that have changed their life just being here,” Old Person said. “They sobered up, they quit using, and so that's a success in itself.”

The shelter’s support system has a family feel to it. The news is on in the kitchen while the cooks prepare dinner. There’s a bulletin board decorated for the previous holiday. Lynette Lunak, who works the front desk, is constantly checking in on clients to see where they’re at with their paperwork.

“I'm just in the process of getting all my applications together, all my, you know, Section 8, Social Security card, GA, oh my gosh, everything,” Lunak said.

Lunak, herself, is a success story. While the shelter was closed for construction, she was living in a home that was condemned because of her drug use. She reached out to Old Person almost every day asking when it would re-open.

“Checking into here … a lot of gratitude,” Lunak said. “And I was willing to volunteer. I was willing to pay forward. But the top priority was I was healing and I was sober and off methamphetamine and I had an opportunity. And I've been here ever since.”

When the shelter did open, Lunak made herself busy, and Old Person eventually hired her. Now, she’s got her own apartment over the storage room, and she’s the first face you see coming through the door.

Lunak, like all the workers here, calls Old Person “Bum.”

“My nickname is Bum. I tell the people here that I beg, I borrow and I bum any way I can.”

For people, and their pets, that’s how Old Person got this place funded.

This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana school of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.

Reporting by the University of Montana School of Journalism students was supported by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation.