BOZEMAN – Isaac Ochoa was on his way to Texas from Spokane, Washington, in 2021 when a car wreck on I-90 near Livingston landed him in southwest Montana.
He bounced around for a while before eventually deciding to make a go of it in Bozeman. So he began looking for a place to live.
“It was like looking for that needle in the barn,” Ochoa told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on a recent Saturday morning.
Unable to find a place, Ochoa bought a trailer, and parked it behind Kenyon Noble in the middle of Bozeman. His home is at the end of an unfinished nub of North 14th Avenue — Ochoa said the spot offers him a degree of privacy.
An Army veteran who has worked with veterans services in the past, Ochoa has an American flag flying above his home.
In the months he’s lived there, Ochoa has made an effort to tidy things up in the area, cleaning up trash around his trailer and around a port-a-potty sitting across the street.
His trailer’s awning covers a neat patio, with a table, benches and plants.
“That represents who I am,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa lives there along with a number of other people who have been pushed out of their housing in Bozeman or who simply can’t find a place to stay.
Most of them are working. Some are disabled. They live in RVs, cars, and tents. Many braved the cold winter months, with some using generators to heat their homes.
“It was like living inside of a frozen iceberg with a heater,” Ochoa said, noting that after a childhood in the Texas heat, he doesn’t mind the cold.
In Bozeman, little neighborhoods like Ochoa’s of temporary housing in vehicles or other temporary shelters have sprung up for those hit hardest by the housing crisis that has seen rents skyrocket and the price of homes pushed out of reach for most everybody.
As the housing crisis shows no signs of letting up, the city is focusing on supporting people rather than trying to do away with those experiencing homelessness.
“I love the concept of meeting people where they’re at,” said Crystal Baker, a homeless services outreach specialist for the Human Resources Development Council. “By doing (outreach), versus saying this: ‘You’re already in a really terrible situation, but you’re sort of in the way and nobody wants to see you so you need to move.’ … I think by taking this different approach it really helps people feel seen and feel like there’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just in a really bad place.”
WHERE THEY ARE
That was the idea Baker had in mind when she organized a clean-up day in early April at a handful of popular sites where people stay in vehicles or tents.
Speaking to a group of people who gathered at the Warming Center to help with the clean-up, Baker emphasized they were helping people clean in front of their homes in an effort to lighten some of the load.
Groups dispatched to different areas of the city: including behind the Kenyon Noble lumber store, near the Town Pump on North 19th Avenue and to Bozeman Pond Park.
In the field behind Kenyon Noble — 12 acres of which are in the early stages of redevelopment — evidence of home life abounds: Lawn chairs and a few metal above-ground fire pits sat in front of some RVs near humming generators.
Walking down the street, Baker and Jenna Huey, another HRDC staff member, knocked on the vehicle doors to let people know about the cleanup. They were mostly greeted with silence or barking.
Not many residents were home. Most work at least one job.
Baker is one of the HRDC employees who does outreach to people living on Bozeman’s streets along with a Bozeman Police Department Community Resource Officer.
People living in vehicles or tents have their reasons for not seeking out the Warming Center on Wheat Drive. Some don’t feel comfortable in a shelter setting, and others like having their own space with their own belongings.
The outreach program is focused on making sure people know what resources are available to them and supporting them in other ways.
Baker said this winter they gave out a lot of gas and propane gift cards so people could run generators or heaters to stay warm. HRDC also offered people carbon monoxide detectors.
To Baker, supporting these Bozeman residents is a better option than just trying to push them out of sight.
The city is also working on supporting people living on public streets, Community Resource Officer Marek Ziegler said, and has recently put in port-a-potties and dumpsters at a few of the sites.
Ziegler said the department fields a steady stream of complaints about the campers — largely just general complaints from people who don’t like the way the encampments look.
“It’s just a lack of knowing why it’s going on,” Ziegler said.
Baker said the clean-up event was also partially in response to comments she has seen on social media of people complaining about having to drive past the camping sites.
“You can drive by these places and you see it from an outsider’s perspective, not really understanding what is going on inside,” Baker said. “It’s really easy to judge, and it’s really easy to decide what’s happening versus … understanding that they are there not out of want, because nobody wants to be homeless, nobody wants to be unhoused.”
For some, stability doesn’t have to come from a traditional house of their own. An RV parked on a public street or a bunk at the Warming Center can provide a level of stability that allows them to move forward.
One person Baker has worked with recently was unable to find housing for a while, so he bought a rundown RV. He made it work, and even in its condition the RV was able to give him enough stability that soon, Baker said, he is preparing to move into stable housing.
Unhoused people in Bozeman received a major boost a few weeks ago when, days before the typical season ending date for the Warming Center, the Bozeman City Commission voted to approve $241,920 in funds to HRDC to cover much of the cost for the facility to stay open for the rest of the year.
Typically, the center opens on Nov. 1 and closes March 31.
March 31 and April 1 are usually rough days at the Warming Center, Huey said.
“In years past we would, in the weeks leading up to the last day of the season, talk with folks about their existing housing plans and what their general plans are after the season ends,” Huey said. “Now we get to say, ‘Okay, the season is not ending. What are your plans going forward? And how can we help you get out of here into something that’s more stable and more sustainable for you?’”
Having the shelter remain open gives people who stay there more time to keep their employment and focus on getting permanent housing, Huey said. With a dangerously low vacancy rate in Bozeman, having more time to find a place to live is necessary for most.
The same goes for people who work with Family Promise, which focuses on providing support to families with housing instability.
Executive Director Christel Chvilicek said they have to waitlist families seeking help because those who are already staying in their shelter are taking longer to find permanent housing.
Similar to people HRDC works with, many Family Promise clients are employed. The issue is the market, Chvilicek said.
“Families have jobs, getting paid $20 to $30 an hour. It’s just literally people who can’t find a home,” Chvilicek said. “We know that there’s so many slipping through the cracks because the resources are just not here to keep up with the pace.”
Prior to the news that it was staying open, Baker said there was a sense of panic rippling through people who stay at the Warming Center, who were about to lose the roof over their head.
Even those who sleep elsewhere were worried, Baker said, asking her what would happen when the facility closed and the dozens of people who regularly stayed there were looking for a place to sleep.
The first day of April this year was much better than in years past, Huey said.
“The day that our customers found out that we were staying open, year-round, it felt like this giant weight lifted off of our building, and off of our customers,” Baker said of the Warming Center. “They were like ’I still have a place to sleep, I can still go to work, and I’ll still have a bed to sleep in, I don’t have to panic, I don’t have to try to figure out a place to hide myself.”
Several of the people they talk to have faced so much disappointment they are disinclined to seek help, Baker said, fearing they will face the same barriers all over again.
Part of the idea behind the cleanup, and the outreach program in general, is to make sure people know they’re not alone.
It’s making an impact on people like Ochoa, who said he is grateful for the support Bozeman gives unhoused people.
“There are a lot of success stories,” Ochoa said.
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