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Montana Shelters, Homeless Struggle To Cope With Social Distancing Orders

A snapshot of homelessness in the U.S. for 01/31/2019.
A snapshot of homelessness in the U.S. for 01/31/2019.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock extended the state’s stay-at-home directive for today until April 24. But that’s no easy ask for people with nowhere to isolate. Nick Mott reports on what the pandemic means for people experiencing homelessness in Montana.

I am across the street from the Poverello Center in Missoula and about a dozen people are outside sitting, pacing; it looks like waiting to be let in for dinner.

The Pov is the largest homeless shelter in Montana, and Amy Allison Thompson is their executive director. I spoke with her over Zoom from her basement.

"Everyone’s told to self-quarantine, you know, stay in your homes. Well if you don’t have a home, then that’s a really terrifying request."

Allison Thompson says the adrenaline of the first few weeks of the pandemic has faded and now what she feels is mostly exhaustion. She says her job means sleepless nights, rethinking every aspect of operations, and tackling problems with no easy answers.

"We’re getting a sneeze guard installed at the front desk; which I would never want, because I don’t want our guests to feel like we need a barrier between ourselves and them."

She’s crawled all over the building wielding a tape measure, finding out: How many people can sleep here if they’re six feet apart? How many people can eat at one time? Those answers entail small surrenders. If they do institute six-foot spacing for beds, for example, that would take nightly capacity down from 150 to about 100 people this time of year.

As shelters and public health officials across the state rush to adapt to the pandemic, Allison Thompson’s experience is representative of the relentless scramble and improvisation required to keep this population safe.

"We don’t have enough time, you know, it feels like this hurry up, hurry up, hurry up kinda place to be in. And, uh, I don’t know. It’s really hard right now."

According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development survey, nearly 1,400 people in Montana were experiencing homelessness one night in January of last year. The majority of those individuals were concentrated in Missoula, Billings, and Kalispell. However, those numbers shift a lot over the course of a year as people find — and lose — housing.

A snapshot of homelessness in Montana for 01/31/2019.
A snapshot of homelessness in Montana for 01/31/2019.

And that population is uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic; they’re disproportionately older, and prone to preexisting chronic health conditions. With no place else to go, they also exist mostly in communal gatherings at shelters or camps.

"The more people who have this, the faster it spreads," says Cindy Farr.

Farr is incident commander for Missoula County’s COVID-19 response. Farr says the county has worked with the Poverello Center and a local health organization to institute a screening procedure for everyone who steps through the door. If someone shows symptoms and needs a test, they’re sent to a local hotel that has volunteered rooms for quarantine.

"But at some point we’re going to outgrow that capacity," she says.

In interviews with shelters and service providers across Montana, finding isolation quarters for suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus stood out as the largest, most persistent problem.

Chris Krager, executive director of Samaritan House in Kalispell, says he only has a couple units available for quarantine, and dealing with the spread of coronavirus in the shelter would be a nightmare scenario.

"It would be so difficult. Boy howdy, that’d be tough."

Samaritan House serves about 65 people a night, and The Warming House, another local shelter that serves about 20 people a night closed its doors in March due to lack of capacity.

The Human Resource Development Council also closed its shelters in both Bozeman and Livingston in mid-March due to a lack of space for adequate social distancing. Combined, those shelters house about 60 people nightly. Heather Grenier, their president and CEO, says she has secured a few hotel rooms for potential quarantine.

"I have spent almost every hour of every day working on alternative solutions," Grenier says.

Grenier and other service providers across the state say the double stigma of homelessness and COVID-19 makes finding space willing to open its doors a particularly thorny proposition. Businesses just aren’t willing to shoulder the risk.

Yellowstone County is taking a different approach. In Billings, the Metrapark Pavilion Center will offer 30-50 spaces for area people awaiting test results or in need of isolation starting on Wednesday, April 8.

Shelters across the state are also revamping hygiene and cleanliness protocols to follow CDC guidelines. And many are reporting fewer, not more clients.

Dave Miller is director of God’s Love in Helena.

"Pre-virus, we had 70, 80 people in here. After the virus, our numbers got cut in half," he says.

Miller says people experiencing homelessness are taking isolation seriously, and seeking shelter on their own. But he also says people are staying at Samaritan House for longer periods of time since housing and jobs are few and far between during the pandemic.

Officials also expressed uncertainty and anxiety over meeting needs down the road as the pandemic causes people to lose jobs and the economy to continue its downward spiral. Jesse Jaeger is director for development and advocacy at Missoula’s Poverello Center.

"Those of us that live in a more middle class, middle income kind of world can forget that for other people in our communities, life is kinda fragile."

Bob Buzzas, director of the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, an organization dedicated to addressing homelessness across the state, says there are bright spots. Across Montana, communities have stepped up with donations, mask-making, and other forms of support.

"It’s local initiative. People are rising up to address their own needs in different ways."

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.