HELENA — Government and nonprofit leaders in Helena have been talking about a new emergency shelter in the city for months. Plans were approved to have one up and running by February, but so far, that has not happened.
In mid-December, the Helena City Commission approved a conditional use permit for Ruth’s Place, a low-barrier women’s shelter to be run by Good Samaritan Ministries in the same building as the Our Place drop-in center.
The location of the planned shelter is the latest setback for the project. The building was recently sold to a new owner.
“We were working on the new lease for Ruth’s Place,” Good Samaritan Ministries executive director Theresa Ortega said. “The landowner and I sat down together and we spelled it all out, what we wanted to see in it. And then he talked to me the next week or two later—it was very sudden he was given this offer as well.”
Ortega said the sale of the building came as a surprise to her and city leaders said the same, noting it was not a possibility that was raised during the process of approving Ruth’s Place.
“I found out about that also after the hearing on the conditional use permit,” Helena city commissioner Melinda Reed said. “That was not something we were aware of.”
Rex Seeley is one of the building’s buyers. He owns multiple properties downtown along Last Chance Gulch and told MTN in an email that purchasing the building on N. Jackson Street was something he had considered for the past three years.
“The issue was lack of parking which we have resolved,” Seeley wrote.
Seeley previously expressed concern about the impact a shelter could have on the area. In public comment submitted to the city before a conditional use permit was approved for Ruth’s Place, he wrote that he was “extremely opposed” to the possible change.
“We are already cleaning up feces, garbage, and discarded possessions of transients in the area,” Seeley wrote in a Nov. 20 email to the city. “They trespass on posted property, dump trash, steal, and vandalize.”
He also noted issues with transient drug use and other aggressive and dangerous behavior.
Seeley said although the building is under new ownership, all leases are still active and have not been modified nor canceled. But according to Ortega and Reed, the purchase has put plans for a shelter on hold.
“A this point, we’re just letting things settle out, see where we need to be,” Ortega said. “We’ve got to find something for Our Place, and then move again towards Ruth’s Place so we can provide that service for women.”
Other locations were suggested during the months of discussion before Ruth’s Place was proposed and approved for a conditional use permit.
“Some of them were large or required considerable investment—fire suppression systems, full renovations,” Reed said.
As far as when a shelter can be expected to open, Reed said there is no timeline.
“I wish I had a good answer,” she said. “I don’t think anything is going to be able to happen very quickly at this point.”
Despite the setback, Ortega said she is not deterred.
“We will not stop on that,” she said. “It becomes more and more apparent to us when women come to Our Place in the morning, and the horrific experiences they’ve had, that we need to address this and keep them safe.”
The city still has $100,000 set aside to fund solutions and help the unhoused population.