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Helena officials address homelessness and housing insecurity

Posted at 10:47 AM, Jan 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-11 12:47:20-05

Local government leaders and support organizations in Helena are teaming up to address the needs of people in the community who are homeless or without stable housing.

About two dozen people gathered Thursday morning at St. Peter’s Health, to launch the Helena Regional Housing Is Healthcare Project. The program is a community planning effort, led by St. Peter’s, the Helena Housing Authority and the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area. The goal is to identify individuals and families who don’t have secure housing, then provide them with targeted support.

Leaders say people without housing security are often heavily using other community services like health care and law enforcement. That can come with extensive costs for those systems.

The Housing Is Healthcare Project will create a “Supportive Housing Action Plan” for the Helena area. “Supportive Housing” combines affordable housing with health care, employment counseling and social services. Advocates say that model can be an especially efficient way to help people maintain housing stability and improve their outcomes.

“It allows the delivery of services that are more effective and meeting their needs, but also less costly,” said Michael O’Neil, executive director of the Helena Housing Authority.

Leaders estimate other communities that have adopted a supportive housing model have seen cost savings of between 18 and 55 percent per individual.

The Helena program’s first step is to bring agencies and organizations together to share their data. By working together, they hope to identify “priority populations” and determine how best to serve them.

“All of us have data systems where we’re tracking the needs of individuals, but there’s very little opportunity to ever identify folks who may be in multiple systems and not getting their needs met properly,” said O’Neil.

On Thursday, the various representatives broke into smaller groups, based on areas of service like health care, criminal justice, child and family services and housing and homelessness. They then began discussing their current resources and how they can work together.

“We’ve all been talking about finding better solutions to the problems, but we’ve been doing it alone,” said Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins. “I’m happy that we can do it as a team.”

The program is funded through a $60,000 grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation, though O’Neil said much of the work will be done by people volunteering in their off hours. MHCF is also funding Housing Is Healthcare programs in Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls and Missoula.

O’Neil said the Helena program should develop a plan by the end of 2019. Leaders will then begin proposing projects to meet the recommendations of that plan.

According to the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, more than 370 people have been entered into a local tracking system for housing issues – including 62 families, 278 adults and 23 12- to 24-year-olds. Leaders estimate homelessness costs the community almost $50,000 per person per year.

-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News