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As demand for homelessness services in Bozeman increases, housing officials look to longer-term solutions

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Courtesy
/
HRDC
Besides during the hours of 7-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. when the warming center is closed for preparation, guests can rest in the bunk area during the day.

Bozeman’s seasonal warming shelter opened earlier this month at double its normal capacity to keep up with a rise in demand.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, some guests did laundry while others used the shower. A few rested in the bunk area, which is located in the back part of the shelter.

HRDC housing director Brian Guyer helps guests check in; he connects people to resources that help them get back on their feet.

"You talk about the amount of money that it took to change this from a roller skating rink to an interim homeless shelter," he said.

Guyer says Bozeman’s seasonal warming shelter added top bunks to its beds this year, doubling its capacity to 120. He says the spike in home prices during the pandemic has increased demand for the shelter, which opened earlier this month and runs through March.

The shelter hasn’t hit capacity, yet, but Guyer fully anticipates it will.

On any given day there are around 150 homeless individuals living in Bozeman. This past year homelessness in the community reached critical levels. 7 people died out in the cold.

“Three of them froze to death out in Lindley Park right after the warming shelter closed in March. We had a big snow in April," said Connie Campbell-Pearson, an Episcopal reverend in Bozeman.

"Should people freeze to death and some runner stumbles on them in the morning?”

When the warming shelter closes for the season, residents in need of housing have limited options. Bozeman is currently the largest city in Montana without a year-round shelter. Local housing experts say a more permanent solution is needed to address the city's housing crisis.

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HRDC staff meet with guests in this front area to discuss housing options and available resources.

Campbell-Pearson has been working to help homeless people in Bozeman for more than a decade. She says one of the obstacles to expanding homelessness services here has been a lack of awareness.

“Most people in Bozeman don’t see the homeless," she said. "You don’t see the homeless unless you are downtown at 7 a.m. in the morning having breakfast and you see somebody sleeping in the doorway of a local business."

Another obstacle: funding. Bozeman has a fund it uses to develop affordable housing options, but voters rejected a ballot measure earlier this month that would have increased property taxes to divert more money into the fund.

But not addressing the area’s rising homelessness is costing the community money.

HRDC interviewed eight homeless individuals and tracked their hospital bills, social services costs and visits to the justice center over a 2-year period. A report published in 2017 found that the average cost was around $28,000 per individual; it’s only grown since then.

A new tiny home development that opened earlier this year next door to the warming shelter could cut that cost in half — and get residents into permanent housing.

“It will be home to 19 people who have experienced chronic homelessness in our community,” said Tracy Menuez, community development director at HRDC.

“I think there’s this impression that homelessness doesn’t cost us anything, why would we pay for this?" she said. "I remind people that we already pay for homelessness, we’re just paying for the worst outcome, which is staying outside."

HRDC estimates that the tiny homes could reduce annual community costs of chronic homelessness by 57%.

Christopher Coburn, who works on community health initiatives at Bozeman Health, says in the past health and stability were prerequisites for housing. The concept at the tiny home village of housing first is a shift away from that approach.

“The idea would be that someone who doesn’t have to worry about housing or if they’re stably housed they’ll have more space, time and capacity to address the other health concerns that they might have, so they might be more likely to follow up with a counselor," Coburn said. "They might be more likely to make their primary care appointments."

Residents in the tiny home development are encouraged to walk next door to the warming shelter to meet with peer support groups that HRDC runs there, or even addiction counselors if needed. They can also take yoga classes and do laundry.

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The night the warming center opened on November 1 there were 41 individuals who stayed overnight.

“In a lot of ways laundry is the name of the game when you’re running a shelter like this,” Guyer said.

Back at the warming shelter, coats are hanging everywhere as people come in to get warm and dry out.

“Having clean clothes is a pretty essential part of feeling human and being able to go out into the community and participate in our workforce,” Guyer said.

Guyer said the washers and dryers at Bozeman’s temporary warming shelter are constantly running. It’ll be a few years before the machines are filled with shorts instead of winter coats: HRDC plans to start building a permanent, year-round shelter in 2024.