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Unsheltered facing cold weather, few immediate solutions

Helena unsheltered
Posted at 5:22 PM, Nov 03, 2023

HELENA — Homelessness has been a hot topic of discussion in the Helena area, it was the center of community conversations in September and has been in the headlines with the formation and disbanding of a camp just outside of city limits.

But for many people, homelessness is not just something to talk about, it’s their reality. With just one emergency shelter in the city of Helena and harsh winter-like weather already hitting the area, it’s not an easy reality.

“The numbers right now are staggering,” Good Samaritan Ministries street outreach coordinator Mark Nay said. “I was just counting the amount of unsheltered people that I’ve worked with this month, and I counted 78.”

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Nay helps connect unsheltered people with resources and support, and hopefully find them housing. He said the 78 people he worked with in October likely represent just a fraction of the area’s unsheltered population.

“As it gets colder, and it will, people’s lives are really at stake,” Nay said.

God’s Love is currently the only emergency shelter available in the city. They have 24 beds for men, 6 for women and nine family units, all of which are completely full.

They are sheltering between 18 and 19 people each night on cots and comforters in the shelter’s overflow area, which fills up at around 40 people. If the overflow area fills, God’s Love employees said they will shelter people overnight in other parts of the facility.

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Service providers and city officials are working to find more options for shelter.

In August, the City Commission set aside $100,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to address the needs of the unsheltered population.

“I made the motion in order that if there was a solution or an idea, we would not say ‘that’s a great idea, we can’t find that,’ we would be in a position to say, ‘that’s a great idea and we can help fund it,” Helena city commissioner Melinda Reed said.

When it comes to solutions, it’s not as easy as the city commission designating a piece of land for a camp or a building for a shelter. Reed explained there are things to consider like zoning regulations, safety codes, accessibility and proximity to services.

“It’s important that when we are talking about these solutions, that we are including people with lived experience—either former lived experience or who are currently experiencing homelessness,” Reed said. “Because they need to be invested in the solution as well and help guide a solution that’s going to work.”

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There is a group of city officials working with service providers in the community to address the immediate need for shelter.

Theresa Ortega, the executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries, said partnerships like this with local government are important.

“This year, people came to the table together,” Ortega said. “It’s really nice to be part of that group.”

Local agencies and government are not the only ones working to address the issues around housing—Governor Greg Gianforte has also worked to address the state’s housing shortage.

According to a statement to MTN from the Governor’s Office, the governor recognized “the urgency of Montana’s housing crisis” and established a housing task force in July 2022. Based on recommendations from that task force, the governor signed the Montana Land Use Planning Act into law.

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At the local level, the city of Helena group working to address the immediate need for shelter asked the City Commission for another month to find options at a meeting last week.

For now, that leaves service providers to find solutions as winter approaches.

“Yeah, it’s scary right now,” Nay said. “A lot of folks facing housing crisis and then those that are living on the streets right now.”

You can help—Good Samaritan Ministries is looking for cold-weather gear to help unsheltered people this winter. Nay said things like winter coats, gloves, hats, boots and sleeping bags are needed, and men’s sizes are most in demand. Those donations can be made to Our Place at 631 N. Last Chance Gulch.