HELENA — COVID-19 has forced a lot of Montanans to spend more time at home. But, for Montanans without homes, the experience has been different.
According to Point in Time survey numbers, there are nearly 2,000 homeless Montanans counted each year.
The Point in Time survey is conducted across the country during the last week of January each year, and it attempts to count the homeless population. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities that get certain federal grants to do a count of homeless shelter and transitional housing residents each year.
“There is homelessness here,” Good Samaritan Ministries executive director Theresa Ortega said.
Over the past several years, Helena has averaged a homeless population of more than 250—it’s a population that Ortega and Good Samaritan Ministries work with directly.
“I think since the pandemic has come across, we’ve found that there is even more homelessness than we thought was here,” Ortega said.
Ortega said the COVID-19 pandemic—and funding that comes with it—has actually created new opportunities to serve the local homeless population.
Good Samaritan Ministries got a nearly $50,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Development Council through CARES Act funding, and they used the money to staff a street outreach team.
Since the outreach team hit the street around the beginning of November, Ortega said they have made contact with and helped 55 people out of the cold and into hotel rooms. Ortega said 10 of those people have found permanent housing since then.
“I has opened new doors for us to serve the population that is homeless and in need of shelter,” Ortega said.
Organizations in the Helena area are gearing up for this year’s point in time survey, but because of COVID-19, it will look different than in years past.
“We know our numbers are probably going to decrease this year because we won’t necessarily have accurate information,” United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area executive director Emily McVey said.
The United Way of Lewis and Clark Area coordinates the local Point in Time survey each year. This year, they will hand out shortened surveys and do observational counts.
Despite counted population numbers possibly being down this year, both McVey and Ortega said they believe the homeless population is rising.
“We’ve seen an increase every year in the number of homeless people we count in our community,” McVey said.
While COVID-19 funding has helped organizations like Good Samaritan Ministries serve the homeless population, Ortega said that specific funding may eventually go away, but homelessness will not.
“Let’s go back to neighbors helping neighbors,” Ortega said. “If you see someone, call, don’t make them invisible.”