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2024 Montana Primary elections

Why does it seem like the homeless population is growing?

An illustration shows a person standing on a mountain with the sky in the background shouting "why."

Austin Amestoy: Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is The Big Why.

Today, we’re talking about homelessness. I’ve got reporter Aaron Bolton, who’s done a lot of reporting on the state’s unhoused population. Hey Aaron!

Aaron Bolton: Hey Austin.

Austin Amestoy: So, what exactly did one of our listeners want to know about homelessness?

Aaron Bolton: They wanted to know why it seems like the homeless population is growing. This question came from a Missoula resident, who didn’t feel comfortable coming on air, but we’ll look at this issue both statewide and in Missoula as that will really put it into context.

Austin Amestoy: It seems like a simple question. Are the number of unhoused people growing?

Aaron Bolton: Get ready for an unsatisfying answer: there’s pretty strong evidence that homelessness is growing statewide, but what’s happening in each community varies a lot.

Austin Amestoy: Ok, what makes this a hard question to answer?

Unhoused people sleeping in Depot Park in downtown Kalispell, MT, August 1, 2023. A pedestrian walks past, wearing headphones and looking at his phone.
Aaron Bolton
Unhoused people sleeping in Depot Park in downtown Kalispell, MT, August 1, 2023.

Aaron Bolton: In short, the unhoused population is always in flux and incredibly hard to count. One attempt to gather this information is through the national point in time count. This is an effort in January where service providers in communities across the country count unhoused people.

I followed workers with Flathead County this year as it expanded its efforts to count people. Sean Patrick O'Neil, a local case manager surveying someone at one of the community dinners for unhoused people.

Sean and others also walked around to count people outside. When I joined them workers were walking under a bridge searching for possible unhoused folks.

Austin Amestoy: So what can that annual count tell us about homelessness in Montana?

Aaron Bolton: According to afederal report on those numbers, Montana saw the fourth largest increase nationwide in homelessness between 2022 and 2023 at about 37%.

The state is also in the top three for increases in chronic homelessness and the number of unaccompanied homeless youth. Montana was one of the only states to see an increase in veteran homelessness as other states saw declines.

Austin Amestoy: Wow, that all sounds bad. But you said the unhoused population is notoriously hard to count. Should we be taking these numbers with a grain of salt?

Aaron Bolton: Yeah. That’s because it’s simply impossible to find everyone who’s unhoused. Every community does the count in different ways and has varying levels of resources to do it. So, these numbers simply have a lot of variables.

Austin Amestoy: So is this all we have to go off of?

Aaron Bolton: No, there are other stats we can look at. Agencies that serve unhoused people enter info into a federal system that provides more reliable data. Essentially, it’s a count of all the people who interact with the formal safety net system – think shelters, federally qualified health centers and other agencies that serve unhoused people.

Statewide, those numbers are actually worse than what the annual January count showed. It showed a 45% increase in homelessness for 2022-2023. That’s weighing heavily on shelters.

Sam Forstag is with the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, which lobbies on behalf of homeless service providers.

Sam Forstag: Shelters are just struggling to keep up with providing for the first order needs that people need on a, you know, -30 degree night to make sure they're not freezing on the streets, and at the same time are trying to find ways to fund actual long term solutions to those problems, you know.

Austin Amestoy: So this is more evidence that the homeless population is growing then?

Aaron Bolton: Yea but these numbers still don't capture everyone.

Bryce Ward is an economist that just did a report that covered this. He said there’s also what’s called the informal safety net. That’s people at risk of homelessness doubling up with family and friends. Recent research estimates that the number of people in this category is about seven times the number of unhoused people nationwide. Ward says that’s happening here too.

Bryce Ward: So that means that the informal safety net is providing a massive protection against homelessness in the system.

Austin Amestoy: Ok, so homelessness is a growing problem statewide, but getting to our listener’s question, what about Missoula? What do we know about what’s happening there?

Aaron Bolton: The data show that since 2019, the homeless population in Missoula has fluctuated from about 690 to a peak of about 800 in early 2023. And more recently, that number has trended down to about 620 people.

Jill Bonny is the executive director at the Poverello Center, a Missoula shelter.

Jill Bonny: We have had some affordable housing units, some permanent supportive housing units come online, and people have actually been getting housed.

Austin Amestoy: So it seems like homelessness is trending down, but it seems like Missoulians are noticing homelessness more than ever. It’s hard to believe the population has been stable or even going down.

Aaron Bolton: Right, I live in the Flathead Valley. While the unhoused population here is growing, it’s not growing at the rate you would think given how visible unhoused people have become.

Ward said there are some studies that show perception of how much homelessness is growing may not be on par with what the numbers show us.

Bryce Ward: So something happened, pandemic-related, potentially, that changed the visibility and awareness of homelessness. There are a bunch of hypotheses for why that is.

Austin Amestoy: Do we have an idea of why our perception of this issue may not be in line with what’s really happening?

Aaron Bolton: There could be a lot of things going on. Bonny at the Poverello Center said who’s becoming homeless could have something to do with it.

Jill Bonny: We are seeing more people that are first time homeless, and that's across the board. That's younger individuals, that's families, that's older individuals.

Aaron Bolton: People who are unhoused for the first time seem to be spending their time in more visible places compared to the past. Bonny said larger encampments have been broken up, leading to more smaller camps.

Data from that federal system we just talked about shows the proportion of unhoused people who have a mental illness or a substance use disorder has been going up. Those people tend to be more noticeable given some of the behaviors that can come along with those conditions.

A recent ninth circuit court of appeals decision said cities can’t kick unhoused people out of a public space if they aren’t providing them with a place to go like a shelter. People may have become more comfortable being in public spaces. That could change if the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on that case, overturns the ninth circuit ruling. Again, Bonny.

Jill Bonny: Doesn't mean they're not there, and it doesn't mean they don't, you know, don't need services. But people will probably be a lot more hidden than they are right now.

Austin Amestoy: Such a complex issue. Thanks for breaking it all down for us Aaron.

Aaron Bolton: No problem.

Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. Submit your questions below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving a review. Let's see what we can discover together!

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing austin.amestoy@umt.edu.
Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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