Operating a shelter is difficult. People assume winter is the worst, but the summer, with extreme heat and no rain, is just as punishing. However, this summer, there are additional challenges.
The explosion of urban camping across the state tells us that the number of people needing emergency shelter is beyond our capacity. In some cities, we are witnessing what happens when funding for warming shelters runs out and shelters close until November. Regardless of the community, low vacancy rates, high rent, health conditions, and lack of mental health or substance use services are why people live in cars, tents, or anywhere they can rest.
It is a sad fact that verbal and physical attacks on the people we serve aren’t new, but this year it is noticeably worse. Recently, Scott Bryan was brutally beaten in Kalispell by men who filmed and posted his killing online. The aggressive public rhetoric and relentless social media comments show a lack of understanding of the realities of our communities and a lack of compassion for our neighbors trying to survive.
Shelters do everything we can to treat people with dignity and keep our community members safe, sheltered, and fed. We provide access to showers, clothes, laundry, and hygiene products. We also help to access birth certificates and help fill out job applications, health care forms, and housing applications. We provide case management, mental health and substance use counseling, veterans services, and medical respite to people who need a safe and dry place to recover from an illness or injury.
Each year, we help hundreds find permanent housing. However, when warming shelters or camping sites close, our connections are tough to maintain. It is very challenging to find them, build trust, and get them the services and support they need to move out of crisis and on their way to stability.
Many shelters in Montana are building or renovating to expand beds and services. We are grateful that the Montana Legislature included $5 million in one-time-only funds in HB 5 for shelters across the state for expansion to provide more beds. They can also be used for updated heating, plumbing, and ADA accessibility. This is an excellent use of a small portion of the budget surplus because these projects will have a lasting impact.
We understand that it is hard to see our state changing – especially when it shows us how many Montanans do not have a place to live. Before passing judgment, remember that no one type of person is homeless. We know that most of the unhoused in Montana – are Montanans. Many were born here, and most have lived here for at least five years. Foster kids age out, families flee domestic violence, people lose their apartments to increasing rents, and many, including a disproportionate number of military veterans, have a mental illness or substance use disorder.
Montana is better when everyone has a safe and affordable place to live. The efforts of shelters across the state are working, but complicated problems like homelessness take sustained, collaborative effort and resources to address.
We are incredibly grateful to the staff, volunteers, and donors who support our guests and help them get back on their feet. If you don’t know much about your local shelter, contact one of us to learn more. We must work together to keep Montana the place we love and ensure our neighbors have a safe place to live.
The Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness is a group of shelters, service providers and community partners advocating for policies and resources to effectively and compassionately support people living without shelter in Montana. Chris Krager, Samaritan House, Kalispell; Heather Grenier, HRDC, IX Inc. serving Gallatin, Park and Meagher counties; Oksana Zakharchenko, Montana Rescue Mission, Billings; Jill Bonny, Poverello Center, Missoula; and Carrie Matter, Great Falls Rescue Mission.
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