HELENA — The Helena City Commission says it wants to take a closer look at new ways to address homelessness in the community – including a proposal to build a new temporary shelter.
During an administrative meeting Wednesday, commissioners heard about the growing impact homelessness is having and some possible responses.
“The question is how far do you want to go, and in what ways,” said city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk.
City leaders said homelessness isn’t a new problem, but it’s becoming an emergency. They’ve received more reports this summer about people setting up camps, particularly downtown, and sleeping in vehicles.
The Helena Police Department has also responded to more calls linked to the issue. In one case, earlier on Wednesday, officers found the body of a man believed to be homeless behind a building near Women’s Park. HPD says the man was in his mid-60s, and his death does not appear suspicious.
It can be difficult to get accurate numbers of how many people are homeless within the community. The United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area conducts an annual Point in Time survey, which identified 131 unsheltered individuals this January. However, due to COVID, they changed the procedure for the count – simply observing those people instead of interviewing them – and it’s not known what effect that had on the numbers.
Leaders say God’s Love Shelter and other organizations that provide temporary shelter have been vital, but they’re not enough to serve everyone in need – and that need will only grow in the winter.
Good Samaritan Ministries has proposed one idea on how to address the issue: the Helena Outdoor Temporary Safe Shelter, or HOTSS. Based on the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space program in Missoula, it would include tents and sanitary facilities and be staffed around the clock to serve people who are homeless.
Theresa Ortega, executive director of Good Samaritan, said the most important thing would be to connect people using the shelter with social services.
“You can have a place, but if you don’t have the services to help people to get to the next place, we’re still going to be in the same place that we are,” she said.
Good Samaritan and other local nonprofits have also looked into pursuing a Community Development Block Grant to buy a hotel or other building that could be used to provide transitional housing.
During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners said they’re interested in taking a closer look at both proposals. However, they want more information on what a HOTSS shelter could look like, the costs and what would be required from the city before making a commitment.
“I’m supportive of really nailing down what this looks like and starting to figure out how we move forward,” said Commissioner Emily Dean.
Commissioner Sean Logan said he wanted to make sure the community was involved in the discussion and had a clear understanding of what leaders are considering.
“With an issue like this, we really probably ought to engage the public as strongly as we can,” he said.
City staff agreed more work needs to be done.
“I think it would be very important for the city and community partners to go to Missoula, see how they have implemented the program, what’s worked, what’s not worked, and see what would work in Helena,” said HPD Chief Steve Hagen.
Ortega acknowledged a new shelter would only be a small first step toward addressing the issue of homelessness, but she said a step needs to be taken.
“Every year this comes up, so I would like to see a start somewhere to work alongside our homeless shelter that cannot serve everyone,” she said.
Good Samaritan presented the HOTSS proposal in a joint meeting with the city and with Lewis and Clark County last month. County commissioners have declined to provide funding for the project.
Commissioner Andy Hunthausen told MTN the majority on the commission wasn’t sure the HOTSS model was the best way to move forward at this time, but that they remained very interested in looking at options for addressing housing and behavioral health needs in the community.