In recent years, Montana’s fastest-growing city, Bozeman, has also seen a rise in the number of people who are homeless. Expensive housing and stagnant wages may be to blame.
As people walk through the door of a homeless shelter in Bozeman, volunteers are giving out hand warmers.
This place is called The Warming Center and it is filling up. Now there are kids running around, folks making popcorn and a guy charging his cell phone in a corner.
Shawn Christy is standing near some lockers, wearing a goatee and stocking cap. He’s been a guest here for more than a month. I ask him why he's here tonight.
"Just because I don’t have to pay anything to be here," Christy says.
Like a lot of guests at The Warming Center, Christy has a job but no home. He works full-time as a dishwasher making $12 an hour and says Bozeman is an pricey place to live.
“Even to get a low-end place would be like half a month’s work for me," Christy says. "Between clothes and food there’s not a lot of room for housing.”
Over the past six years, the cost of a house in Gallatin County has risen by more than 50 percent while wages have remained relatively stagnant. This means many working people can’t afford a place to live and an increasing number end up homeless.
In the past year, the shelter has seen a 30 percent rise in the number of people staying there.
“You know, I think the story of homelessness, oftentimes people immediately envision somebody flying signs on the street,” says Tracy Menuez , a special projects officer for the Human Resource Development Council in Bozeman.
“They don’t necessarily think about the person who is working 40 hours a week, making $12 an hour who is just simply can’t secure a rental in our area, so they’re living at the Warming Center,” Menuez says.
She says Bozeman has an affordable housing crisis. A lot of people are moving here but there aren’t enough homes.
“Anytime you’re in that situation where demand is outstripping available supply, you’re going to see prices increase,” she says.
You can see how this could be challenging for people on a fixed income who don't have enough money to get a place to stay out of the cold. And it’s a common problem where homelessness is growing like here in the Bozeman area. Menuez also says many units are being converted into short-term, Air BnB-style vacation homes.
“That completely changes the market of people who might have previously been able to afford a monthly rental," Menuez says. "We’re seeing people who are getting notices that their rentals are now not going to be available anymore and that oftentimes somebody is selling the house because it’s now worth so much or they're going to be utilizing it as a vacation or seasonal rental.”
Michell Ball made nearly $12 an hour as an assistant manager at a Family Dollar. That’s until she and her three boys were evicted from their apartment in September for not paying the rent on time.
Finding a new place, she says, is hard.
“Because they want to have a perfect referral for apartments and they want the deposit, the rent, first month and second month so it’s like, cough up $3,000 in one sitting and I was only making maybe $300 a week,” Ball says.
A tight housing market also means people with poor references, a criminal record or mental illness are often passed over for renters with a less checkered background.
While there are nearly 1,000 subsidized and unsubsidized affordable housing units in Bozeman, waiting lists can run on for months.
Affordable housing advocate Tracy Menuez says real estate developers are less eager to develop new affordable housing units because federal tax credits to do so have decreased in recent years.
Despite all the troubles, there is some good news for the homeless in Gallatin County.
Larkspur Commons, a 136-unit affordable housing complex in Bozeman, opened this September.
Montana State University’s School of Architecture has teamed up with a local church to build a small village of 30 to 50 micro-units for people who are chronically homeless.
And Bozeman’s Human Resource Development Council is developing affordable townhomes for purchase in the city.
“We feel like providing homeownership opportunity is even better, because that really stabilizes their housing costs forever,” Menuez says.
Back at the shelter, Michell Ball is trying to wrangle her three boys as they run around some tables. She says she never expected to become homeless when she moved to Bozeman.
“I came from Texas two years ago expecting to have a better life and I’ve had some hiccups. Hopefully… hopefully hopefully I will get everything in place and be better off,” Ball says.
And someday, Ball may just get that permanent home in the ever-growing Gallatin Valley.