Community leaders across the state are preparing for more people who might need access to a homeless shelter this year. The state’s moratorium on evictions amid the pandemic expires this month and shelters in Montana have already seen greater demand from years of cost of living increases in the state.
More than 36,000 households in Montana were behind on mortgage payments last month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly the same amount were also behind on rent.
On Dec. 8, the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) opened its new warming shelter in Bozeman. Around half a million dollars have turned what used to be a daycare center with multiple classrooms and a low hanging ceiling into a big open space with a lot of natural light, better insulation and an air purification system.
HRDC’s Housing Director Shari Eslinger walks past 59 newly purchased beds and into one of the renovated bathrooms.
“We have this big, beautiful ADA compliant shower,” Eslinger said.
The shower is designed for someone who’s wheelchair bound. Eslinger says it’s a drastic improvement over what they had at the old shelter.
“Oh, my gosh. It was this square plastic electric plug in that you put in a separate room and that’s how they would have to take a shower,” Eslinger said.
The new shelter has quadruple the toilets and showers as the old facility.
HRDC President and CEO Heather Grenier says the number of community members experiencing homelessness has been on the rise in recent years and she does not expect it to slow down. HRDC provided shelter to 356 people last season.
“We’re worried and we continue to reach capacity more nights than not,” Grenier said.
Grenier says staff are seeing more people sleeping in cars and campers this year. She says the rising cost of home prices and rent in Bozeman is having a big impact on the most vulnerable.
“Our elderly households, persons with disabilities, single parent households and others already struggling to meet the increased cost of living,” Grenier said.
She points to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that found a $100 increase in a community’s median rental price is associated with about a nine percent increase in the rate of homelessness.
“We’re seeing that bear out in our own community,” Grenier said.
To minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19, staff will check the shelter guests’ temperatures at the door and anyone with symptoms will receive alternative accommodation. Masks will be required unless someone is at their bed.
In order to follow public health guidelines for physical distancing, the new shelter can accommodate 60 guests per night.
That’s why HRDC will continue to use a hotel it purchased earlier this year, prioritizing rooms for people in the high risk category for COVID-19
She says running operations at both the new warming shelter and the hotel will cost HRDC about $400,000 this season. Providing shelter takes a lot of staff and volunteer time and relies on community donations rather than federal grants.
“A lot of time and energy is focused, and it has to be, on shelter because we have to make sure everyone has a safe, warm place to sleep. That’s not the ultimate goal, right? The goal is that we make that homelessness rare, brief and one time and that we’re wrapping the services around them to overcome that homelessness and be successful,” Grenier said.
HRDC has plans to build a year round shelter at a different location with 144 beds. Grenier says HRDC has purchased the land, and “if the stars align,” construction could begin summer 2021. The warming shelter being used this winter would become a resource hub for housing, childcare services, transportation, jobs and money management. It would also provide space for the Gallatin County Food Bank.
A single night count in January found more than 1,500 people in communities across Montana were experiencing homelessness on a single night back in January. According to the 2020 Montana Point in Time report, Missoula had the highest number of people experiencing homelessness that night, followed by Billings and Kalispell.
Missoula’s new wintertime ‘Temporary Safe Outdoor Space’ for homeless people is also now open and ramping up operations.
The project could eventually shelter a maximum of forty Missoulians. Eric Legvold is managing the project’s logistics for United Way of Missoula County.
“The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space will provide access to tent shelters and warmth, proper sanitation and waste removal, frequent wellness and COVID screenings, as well as 24/7 staffing, providing outreach and onsite case management," Legvold says.
The new shelter is modeled after similar projects in other states, but organizers say it’s a first for Montana. It’s receiving about $100,000 of state and federal funds to get it started.
Eran Pehan is the director of the city’s Housing and Community Development program.
She says Missoula nonprofits are now more coordinated than ever to provide shelter for people facing housing issues. Over the past three years she says they’ve worked hard to efficiently connect the city’s most vulnerable people with resources they can use to turn their lives around.
“And so we are more prepared than ever to deal with an uptick in numbers that we know we’ll see from the pandemic," Pehan says.
Meanwhile, a temporary cold-weather emergency shelter is preparing for its second winter in Kalispell.
The Flathead Warming Center, currently operating out of Faith Lutheran Church, is in the process of purchasing a new building on North Meridian Road which will double its capacity.
Last winter the nonprofit sheltered over 100 people during the winter’s coldest months, with a capacity to serve 20 a night.
Flathead Center Executive Director Tonya Horn says organizers hope to open before Christmas.
“Without the warming center, police departments and lobbies and jails and hospitals and emergency rooms and mental health centers often become a costly and inappropriate alternative for individuals," Horn says.
The Flathead Warming Center will, like Missoula’s temporary winter shelter, operate on a low barrier principle. People with pets, addiction or mental health issues will be allowed to stay as long they’re not violent or disruptive.
Horn says last winter the Center had to routinely turn people away. She does not anticipate the same issue this year thanks to the bigger facility.