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Missoula emerges as a regional leader in homeless programming – Missoulian

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Shortly after Missoula opened its Temporary Safe Outdoor Space in 2020, Helena nonprofit leaders visited the innovative camp for those without homes to see how they could replicate the initiative in Montana’s capital.
Community opposition, however, prevented Good Samaritan Executive Director Theresa Ortega from setting up such a service in Helena.
Then, in May 2022, 24-year-old Jacob Garza died when the recycling container he was sleeping in went through a trash compactor in Helena.
The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space on the outskirts of Missoula opened in 2020.
Ortega, nonetheless, has worked tirelessly with her Helena partners to provide resources to unhoused Helena residents through her nonprofit work.
Good Samaritan Ministries helps residents with tasks like getting identification through its Assistance Ministry. They disperse grants to help with expenses such as rent deposits and run a daytime drop-in center with resources and addiction recovery support.
They also work with landlords, perform street outreach and run a store that employs people facing housing instability.
“It’s all combined together,” Ortega said.
But despite the nonprofit’s efforts to support people in homelessness, Helena’s city government offers little in the way of public support for its unhoused population.
According to 2022 Point-in-Time survey data, Helena has 143 houseless people. By comparison, Missoula has 325. Kalispell has 319.
The Helena Police Department is the go-to resource for dealing with Helena’s unhoused population.
“It seems to always fall into the Police Department’s wheelhouse,” said Helena Police Chief Brett Petty. “Our view of homelessness is homelessness is not a crime.”
Too often, however, Petty said concerned Helena residents perceive unhoused individuals as criminals and call law enforcement to respond. Petty’s officers frequently interact with homeless people during instances of trespassing, ADA obstructions on sidewalks and health and safety issues springing from belongings left in parks and public places.
Petty stressed law enforcement is not the entity with the resources to remedy homelessness, and their response tends to simply move unhoused residents around the area without helping them improve their situation. He said the police department relies upon partnerships with organizations like Good Samaritan to try to find housing.
Dinner is served to a larger-than-usual crowd at Helena’s God’s Love shelter in February 2019 as subzero temperatures gripped the Helena Valley.
But while the city does not have dedicated resources for addressing homelessness, its focus on affordable housing has been increasing in recent years.
Helena conducted a tri-county housing needs assessment in 2018 that provided the impetus for numerous initiatives that are now underway.
New in 2021, Helena added a Housing Coordinator position at the city. In that job, Kara Snyder supports affordable housing projects and looks for grants. In 2019, the city partnered with Good Samaritan to support a Housing Navigator position at the nonprofit. The Housing Navigator works to find housing for people who make 30 to 80% of the Area Median Income.
“That’s been pretty successful,” said Snyder.
Helena’s planning and zoning reform promotes infill development, and in 2020 the city introduced a fee waiver program for developments that benefit people making 60% or lower AMI. So far, the fee waiver has supported two affordable housing projects.
Helena’s Home Renewal Program works to preserve currently affordable housing by funding rehabilitation projects through Community Development Block Grants, and the first project in that pipeline is currently in progress.
Most recently, Helena introduced a new housing trust fund, which started taking its first round of applications in October.
“It’s certainly going to be moving forward a pretty powerful tool,” Snyder predicted.
Still, Snyder acknowledged the uphill battle her position faces given housing costs in Helena and the surrounding area. She pointed to a Washington Post story that reported Lewis and Clark County had the fifth-fastest rent price increase of any U.S. county from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2022.
“It’s kind of shocking to see,” she said.
Skyrocketing housing costs are at the crux of the housing102 issue in the Flathead, too, and the local government has little involvement in addressing the issue.
Kalispell accounts for the second-highest number of unhoused Montanans out of any city, behind Missoula by a mere six people according to 2022 Point-in-Time survey data. The Flathead’s homeless count in 2022 saw an increase of 80 people over the previous Point-in-Time numbers.
The reasons are manifold, according to Sean Patrick O’Neill with Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana. but housing prices are chief among them. Resources like CAPNM and Flathead Warming Center have recently seen notable upticks in seniors, disabled people living on fixed incomes and dual income earners.
Last year at the Warming Center, which operates during the winter, Horn remembered, “we were literally handing out walkers.”
In 2020, Census data showed fewer than 24,000 people living in Kalispell, compared to almost 75,000 in Missoula that same year. While Kalispell and its environs are rural and spread out, homelessness is becoming a more visible problem in the community as the population grows.
“People have really felt the rise in homelessness,” observed Tonya Horn, executive director of Flathead Warming Center.
The Flathead incurred more homeless individuals as well because people from surrounding communities seek out resources in the regional hub. O’Neill said Kalispell is seeing influxes from areas including Libby, Hot Springs and Paradise.
But what the newcomers perceive as a service destination is really a homeless epicenter strapped for resources, according to O’Neill.
“People think there’s more here than there is,” he said.
Kalispell needs to double its shelter capacity to meet the unhoused need in the area. The Warming Center, Kalispell’s equivalent of Missoula’s Johnson Street Emergency Winter Shelter, frequently turns people away when it reaches capacity. The Warming Center just added 10 additional beds, bringing its capacity up to 50. Missoula’s Winter Shelter holds 135.
Nonprofits take the lead on addressing homelessness in the Flathead, whereas the local government criminalized sleeping in vehicles on Kalispell city streets in 2019. The vehicle ordinance has driven people away from resources located in the city and led to an uptick in human trafficking and other criminal activity, according to O’Neill.
“That’s a growing issue,” O’Neill said. “We’re seeing that at an alarming rate.”
O’Neill and Horn would like to see more resources, more government buy-in and more support from the local community. Horn said service providers are eyeing solutions that Missoula has implemented, including the Mobile Support Team, the coordinated entry system, supportive housing with services on-site — a model that does not exist in Flathead County — and long-range planning focused on homelessness.
“That would be absolutely transformational in our community,” Horn said.
The dangerous offshoots of homelessness, including human trafficking, are commonly felt in the Billings community, according to Kari Boiter with the Yellowstone County Continuum of Care.
It’s a particularly sinister outcome for unhoused youth, who are likely to be trafficked after just 48 hours on the street, Boiter said.
That’s especially concerning because an estimated one-fifth of all homeless individuals in Montana, including youth, are found in Yellowstone County, Boiter added.
“It’s almost unfathomable how big our problem is,” said Boiter.
People line up for breakfast at St. Vincent de Paul in Billings in March 2020.
2022 Point-in-Time survey data suggests 281 unhoused people live in Billings, but Boiter believes the true figure is much higher.
“We have an under-counting problem,” Boiter explained. She and other frontline providers repeatedly bemoaned the limitations of Point-in-Time data and its reliance on single-day counts, usually conducted in winter when more people find housing.
Billings’ Continuum of Care system, which includes 17 service providers, served 756 unique individuals during three months in spring 2022.
Billings’ coordinated entry system, like Missoula’s streamlined system, went into place in 2018. But Hope Mission, their largest shelter, doesn’t participate in the program. And even with the 17 entities involved in the system, Boiter said, Billings far underserves the houseless need in the area.
“We do the best we can with the resources we have already existing,” she said.
Because of Billings’ role as a regional center for transportation, commerce, jobs and medical care, Boiter believes the unhoused population there is exponentially increasing.
A person sleeps on the sidewalk on South 30th Street in Billings as the temperature dips to 25 degrees in March 2020.
Bozeman, too, is hard-pressed to meet the need of its houseless population, even as droves of unhoused Bozemanites are leaving the area, said Brian Guyer with the Human Resources Development Council.
Even though he serves as the organization’s housing director, Guyer lives in Livingston 25 miles east of the city.
The demand is perhaps most visible at the homeless shelter made out of a former roller rink, a facility Guyer said is “maxed out.”
HRDC is currently underway on a capital campaign for a new purpose-built facility with room for 130 guests and family suites.
But as Guyer and his partners wait for those funds to trickle in, the unhoused population in Bozeman is growing.
The Bozeman-Livingston area has 184 unhoused individuals according to the 2022 Point-in-Time survey data. Indicators of the rising homeless population are rampant.
HRDC’s shelter, for instance, never saw the anticipated decrease in guest numbers from winter to summer. During an especially cold March night, the facility that typically serves 80 people tapped out at 105 guests. But throughout the summer, the shelter continued to exceed the 100-person mark.
The numbers of working people, families, seniors and car campers are all on the rise, Guyer reported.
In response, HRDC has started initiatives like converting non-congregate quarantine space into family residences and launching a Housing First Village, which provides housing before addressing other issues like mental health and addiction.
HRDC also works to reduce ancillary home costs through efforts like weatherization to lower energy bills. It operates a pay-what-you-can restaurant and busses people to the food bank.
The city of Bozeman has played an active role in addressing houselessness, particularly through funding to keep the shelter doors open. But Guyer said, “We know there’s only so much we can do to reduce housing costs.”
Across the Idaho Panhandle in Spokane, the local government is also grappling with a growing homeless population.
From 2020 to 2022, Spokane’s Point-in-Time data demonstrated a 13% increase in the unhoused population with 1,757 individuals counted in 2022.
One prong of Spokane’s approach focuses on affordable housing, according to Brian Walker, Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services communications manager for the city of Spokane.
This summer, $10 million from three different funding sources went toward 11 affordable housing projects, including new construction and rehabilitation.
Shelter space is another focus area in Spokane.
“The Trent Resource and Assistance Center opened last month to complement the existing shelter system with defined space for men, women, couples, LGBTQ+ and (unemployed) who need night-by-night drop-in space,” Walker wrote in an email.
A new young adult shelter located near Spokane Community College launched in November 2021 with job training and support services.
Spokane also supports bridge housing and a first-of-its-kind regional stabilization center for people to receive treatment instead of jail time for nonviolent crimes. In addition, Spokane is home to a mental health task force and a behavioral health unit that brings together law enforcement and behavioral health specialists.
Like Missoula, however, the future of Spokane’s houseless programming is ambiguous. With one-time federal funding running out for some of Spokane’s new programs, the city is contending with questions about how to fund its new resources.
“Some local leaders have simply raised the question of whether to go to the voters for a funding levy on the ballot,” wrote Walker, “but formal discussions have not occurred.”
The pillars of cosmic dust captured in a famous 1995 photo by the Hubble has just been giving another perspective by the James Webb Space Telescope.
This is the second in a two-story project on homelessness in Missoula. To read the first story about Missoula leaders reflecting on the city’s plan to end homelessness, pick up a copy of Sunday’s paper or visit Missoulian.com.

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The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space on the outskirts of Missoula opened in 2020.
Dinner is served to a larger-than-usual crowd at Helena’s God’s Love shelter in February 2019 as subzero temperatures gripped the Helena Valley.
People line up for breakfast at St. Vincent de Paul in Billings in March 2020.
A person sleeps on the sidewalk on South 30th Street in Billings as the temperature dips to 25 degrees in March 2020.
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