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Without a phone, finding housing becomes even more challenging

A mobile phone with a notice on the screen saying messages can't be received because the account payment is overdue.
Jack Marshall
University of Montana School of Journalism
A mobile phone with a notice on the screen saying messages can't be received because the account payment is overdue.

Before some Montanans have a chance at finding housing they first need a cell phone. Programs in Missoula have worked with homeless clients to make that happen. But the money and the phones are running out.

Long before Guy Johnson was handing out phones to homeless people in Missoula, he himself was homeless.

“I’ve been homeless in Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte, Billings, Denver,” said Johnson.

After some time in jail, Johnson finally found a place to live when he got a job at a Missoula homeless shelter. He worked for the Poverello Center’s phone handout program, where he gave out about 60 phones.

“So, bottom line is phones are a necessity these days,” said Johnson. “And they've always been like that, but really nowadays it's a simple functioning of housing navigation, trying to look for housing, employment navigation.”

Regular access to a phone can be a step toward finding housing. But phones and calling plans also cost money. The Poverello Center’s program shut down after federal pandemic aid that was supporting it ran out. A separate phone handout program jointly run by Missoula City and County also is in danger of stopping because of funding issues.

“If you don't have a phone, you are just that much further behind,” said Kristen Jordan.

Jordan is on the Missoula City Council now, but before that, she worked as the manager for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Part of her job was figuring out funding needs and finding grants to cover them. One of the needs she focused on was cell phones – primarily for people involved with Missoula’s drug treatment court.

“Because people need to have a phone to talk to their lawyer or to get a call from a rental application update or to talk to a future employer,” Jordan said. “And it really is a big socioeconomic divide.”

The phone handout program she initiated gave out about 40 phones. A MacArthur Foundation grant tied to alleviating overcrowded jails funded the phone program for a while before the money ran out.

“Official government funds are drying up at the state and federal level,” said Jordan. “And it's, it's just falling on to the county and city, especially in Montana, it's falling on cities and counties to pick up that slack.”

Without funds to keep the program running, people like Brad Bristow are stuck in a hard place. Bristow was a maintenance worker in resort towns like Park City and Jackson Hole before coming to Missoula without a place to live.

“My phone? Um, well, I got him when we got married, my wife and I,” said Bristow. “I've had it since, but the, uh, bill is lapsed on it. So I don't have it.”

Bristow’s phone will not let him receive messages unless he pays a monthly phone bill, which he can’t afford.

Jake Lapke, a Missoula Treatment Court administrator, helped run part of the city’s phone program. He plans to ask the Montana Legislature to restore funding for it. He knows that’ll be an uphill battle.

“I think that there's a lot of change that needs to happen on a legislative level to be able to provide more financial assistance to programs like mine,” said Lapke.

In the meantime, Lapke attends to other basic needs for his clients like finding hygiene products and legal resources.

“It's a daily struggle sometimes,” said Lapke. “Some days are better than others, but really what I've learned through this process is, is really focusing on the positives.”

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.

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