The agencies and organizations that work with Flathead County’s homeless population now have a five-year plan to address the issue of homelessness and determine how to eradicate it.
The plan comes after more than a year of work from the Samaritan House homeless shelter, the United Way and the Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana.
Together, the groups are called Flathead HIRE (Homelessness Interagency Resource and Education), and the goal of the plan is to build a “coordinated community response that meets the needs of its homeless population and provides safe and viable alternatives to homelessness.”
Chris Krager, director at Samaritan House, said the plan helps keep organizations like his in line with other agencies that are working with the same populations.
“I’m just a guy who runs a homeless shelter without an organized plan, and so this plan makes me feel like I’m not so alone,” Krager said.
Sherry Stevens, executive director at United Way, said the plan is necessary to combat homelessness in the Flathead because it is such a large problem that no single entity can do it alone.
“The issue of homelessness impacts every single person in our community,” Stevens said. “The only way we can do this is in an organized method.”
The first section of the new plan outlines the Flathead’s homeless demographics, and takes the step of defining what homeless means. It includes people in four broad categories:
• People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or who are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided
• People who are losing their primary nighttime residence, which may include a motel or hotel or a doubled up situation, within 14 days and lack resources or support networks to remain in housing
• Families with children or unaccompanied youth who are unstably housed and likely to continue in that state
• People who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, have no other residence, and lack the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing.
A survey shows the homeless population in Flathead County in January 2013 was 763 individuals. That number increased from 240 individuals in 2007.
Flathead HIRE believes the homeless population is much higher than the numbers show, because the survey is completed each year on one day in January.
The same survey showed 218 homeless families, which make up about 59 percent of the homeless population in the county, and reported that 169 of the survey respondents were disabled or mentally ill. Another 115 of the individuals were veterans.
After taking a look at these demographics, the plan tries to nail down the causes of homelessness in Flathead County, and the list includes lack of affordable housing; loss of job or change in income; domestic violence; mental illness; substance abuse; mental and/or physical disability; family discord and crisis; and finally, poverty.
“The underlying force behind homelessness is poverty. If an individual is not poor then becoming homeless is a much less likely scenario,” the plan states. “Unfortunately for the working poor living in Flathead County, there is not a lot of opportunity for income growth in the seasonal and service industries. This limits the chance to overcome the poverty line threshold for the nearly 18 percent of the population living in poverty.”
Homelessness puts financial strain on a community, the plan states, including jail and emergency room visits. Putting funding toward the roots of homelessness could help ease this pressure on communities, the plan states.
For example, affordable housing can be difficult for families in poverty to find. The Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is $23,550, meaning that family is supposed to find housing for $588.75 per month.
In Kalispell, over 17 percent of the population is living under that federal standard of poverty. There’s only so much belt-tightening a family can do when they are one paycheck away from being homeless, the plan states.
In 2013, there were about 800 permanent housing units that are made affordable for low and very low-income households because of the Section 8 Rental Voucher Program and other subsidized housing programs in Flathead County.
The plan notes that this number will likely have to increase to 3,200 units to effectively handle the population that needs it.
Other issues dealt with in the plan are the varying types of shelters available, services, prevention, and community outreach and awareness.
“We want to make an intrinsic change in how our community views homelessness,” Stevens said.
As for goals in the five-year plan, the first is to increase shelter space and the number of beds available in Flathead County, followed by efficient and effective communication and coordination among agencies.
Goal No. 3 is to increase preventative measures and affordable housing, and then work on public awareness and involvement. The final goal is to sustain the annual Project Homeless Connect event, where more than 25 organizations provide essential services to the homeless population.
By having this plan in place, and having checkpoints and goals to reach in the next five years, Flathead HIRE hopes to start eradicating homelessness in the valley.
“It’s a blueprint,” Stevens said. “You wouldn’t build a house without a foundation and a blueprint. This is the blueprint to try to make a change.”
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