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'Unsheltered' population is growing in Helena

Posted at 8:32 PM, Jul 02, 2024

HELENA — The annual "Point In Time Survey of the Unsheltered" results, conducted by the United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area (UWLCA), show that homelessness is rising in Helena.

The survey results show that there are currently 181 unsheltered people in Helena, an increase of 17 from 2023.

That number includes 17 children, 11 veterans, and 103 with disabling conditions.

The number surveyed this year is close to the average in the Homeless Management Information System, which is 180.

"I could stand here for hours and tell you stories of how folks have come on these hard times, but to have the statistics and to know how many folks you're really talking about means that our city officials, our county officials, even our state legislators can truly recognize this is a problem. This isn't just our bleeding-heart liberals saying, 'We've got a problem on our hands.' these are actual facts. This is the real deal," said Community Impact Coordinator at UWLCA, Jeff Buscher.

Buscher said, "To know that we have these numbers, [it] helps us plan for the financial needs [and] helps us plan for emergency situations."

The survey has around 25 questions and is conducted at the end of each January.

Along with demographic questions, it asks, "Where are you sleeping tonight?" "How long have you been homeless?" and "Is this the first unsheltered episode you have had?"

This year, the survey was collected in a new way.

The UWLCA hosted dinners at four locations, where unsheltered individuals received a free meal while completing the survey.

PIT questions

"I think this method worked really well, and it meets a need. So, I think we will use this model going forward," said Buscher.

The survey results come less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities can enforce bans on homeless camps.

Helena does have some urban camping restrictions, but they are not currently enforced.

However, the Helena Police Department told MTN they are in initial discussions about possible changes to that policy.

Buscher said, "Cities and counties will have to respond to that with their own policies, and we hope that it does not take the humanity out of the situation."

American flag

UWLCA says the cost of housing and housing shortages are significant factors in the number of unsheltered people.

"There is a direct correlation between housing prices and our unsheltered population. Unfortunately, that is the key ingredient that leads to an increase in our unsheltered population," said Buscher.

Helena area projects that support the unsheltered population include Good Samaritan Ministries (GSM) Ruth's Place.

GSM has partnered with Family Promise to build an expansion behind Taco Bell on North Montana Ave, increasing the facility to 12 units.

UWLCA is continuing its work on the Helena Inn Hotel "with the goal of converting hotel rooms into high-efficiency studio apartments."

It hopes to open some rooms for occupancy around the beginning of 2025.

You can find more information on available services and ways to help through the UWLCA website.