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Billings remembers 17 people who died unhoused

A crowd stands on the snowy Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn as a man reads a prayer
Nadya Faulx
Yellowstone Public Radio
Craig Barthel of Off the Streets reads a prayer during Wednesday's Homeless Persons Memorial Day event in downtown Billings.

As snow fell and temperatures hovered around negative 12 degrees, city and faith leaders along with advocates and some unhoused residents gathered outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse Wednesday to mark Homeless Persons Memorial Day.

It's a day observed by cities across Montana and the country on December 21st — the shortest day and the longest night of the year — as a time to remember people who died while experiencing homelessness.

A woman speaks to a person holding a cup of coffee
RiverStone Health
Healthcare for the Homeless program manager Misty LaFranier speaks to an attendee at Wednesday's memorial downtown.

The brief ceremony in downtown Billings featured speakers, but not the music and candlelight vigil the city had planned on holding.

“We’ve shortened this vigil today because of the weather, and the dangerous cold," said John Felton, CEO of RiverStone Health, which runs various homeless outreach programs. "We contemplated moving it indoors, because that’s a choice that we have. People living on our street don’t have that choice.”

Seventeen people died on Billings streets this year – some from addiction, or illness, and some from exposure to the elements. That’s down slightly from the 20 people who died the previous year, but Misty LaFranier with Healthcare for the Homeless, which organized Wednesday’s event, says it’ll take more outreach to get that number to zero.

“We need to find them where they’re at, and I think that’s the future of where we’re going is, is going out there and finding them and being there for them instead of waiting for them to come to us," she said.

Healthcare for the Homeless currently serves nearly 1,400 patients staying short-term shelters, living without housing, or utilizing drop-in centers; in addition to its main clinic, the program also runs an outreach clinic at St. Vincent de Paul across the street from the Montana Rescue Mission shelter.

Billings' new, 31-bed low-barrier shelter also opened its doors Wednesday night.

Nadya joined Yellowstone Public Radio as news director in October 2021. Before coming to YPR, she spent six years as digital news editor/reporter for the NPR affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, where her work earned several Kansas Association of Broadcasters awards and a regional Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Social Media. Originally from Texas, Nadya has lived and worked in Colorado, Illinois, Washington, D.C.; and North Dakota. She lives in Billings with her cat, Dragon, and dog, Trooper, and enjoys hiking, crocheting, and traveling as often as possible.