Billings, service providers seek solutions to homeless, transient issue

2014-07-30T06:00:00Z 2014-09-05T06:29:04Z Billings, service providers seek solutions to homeless, transient issueBy MIKE FERGUSON The Billings Gazette

City leaders and social service providers are hoping that a summit planned for this fall on dealing with Billings’ homeless and transient population can be informed by success stories in other communities, including San Antonio, Texas, and Reno, Nev.

“A role for the city is to bring great ideas here for people to discuss and consider,” said Brenda Beckett, manager of Billings’ Community Development Division. “We have all these models to look at, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to do the same thing. It has to be relevant for our community.”

The idea is to evaluate what programs work elsewhere and tailor them to Billings’ particular circumstances — its proximity to the Bakken oil fields and American Indian reservations and the city’s reputation as a place with a broad array of social services.

“We are excited about the options that will be presented, and about gathering as many partners as we can from private nonprofit providers,” said Lisa Harmon, executive director of Downtown Billings, who like Beckett has traveled to San Antonio to observe Haven for Hope, a one-stop program that combines shelters and social services — and even law enforcement and court officials.

Dates and the location of the Billings summit have not been determined, said Billings City Administrator Tina Volek. But the summit is timely. The problems that can bring on homelessness — mental health issues, addiction or even a sudden change in life circumstances — seem to Volek and others more noticeable lately, although Volek is quick to add she still considers Billings a safe city.

“We have clearly seen an increase in very public incidents over the last two summers, not only downtown but throughout the city,” she said. Police Chief Rich St. John told her — and has said publicly — that the summer of 2013 was the worst one he’s seen in 30 years of policing.

For Dwight Raup, who will be 65 next month and is a Vietnam veteran with a leg wound to prove it, the term homeless is “just a scapegoat,” a moniker some people use to pry donations from others.

“People are bloodsuckers,” he said.

Raup said he camps each night in downtown Billings and accepts donations, but doesn’t seek them. He said he’d use a provided shelter, but “I don’t like a barracks situation.”

About 15 percent of Billings’ homeless population reported sleeping outside during the annual “Point in Time” survey taken in January.

Seated on a downtown bench Tuesday morning, Raup said he spends most of his waking hours “wandering around, sitting around. People who are real talk to me and are good to me.”

Finding the money

One of the barriers to bringing service agencies and shelters under one roof — or at least adjacent roofs — is the cost. Volek said she’s eyeing the Montana Health Foundation, created when Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana was sold and worth in excess of $150 million. The foundation’s executive director has talked about seeking one or two health issues to address; Volek said the mental health and addiction issues contributing to Billings’ roughly 700 homeless and an unspecified number of transients are worth at least part of that investment. However, she has not heard from the foundation.

A one-stop shop doesn’t necessarily mean longtime service providers have to relocate their facilities. In San Antonio, providers have a presence at that city’s Haven of Hope, but many have their main offices or facilities elsewhere.

“This has emerged as a best practice,” said Harmon, of Downtown Billings, “but it’s brick and mortar and it’s programmatic, and it needs to be sustainable.”

Harmon was the first chairperson for the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness. She said she’s looking for the fall summit to be as diverse as possible, including homeless people and nonprofit service providers as participants generating ideas that could be implemented.

“It has never been us and them,” she said. “It’s we.”

Seeking what works

In addition to the San Antonio facilities, Billings officials and service providers have a Reno program and others in their sights.

Sandy Isham, senior development and community relations officer for Reno’s Community Assistance Center, said the downtown facilities there are nice — they resemble “a new Best Western hotel,” she said — but don’t stick out in what’s billed as “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

“We work hard to keep the community engaged” through the faith-based nonprofit agency that runs the center, Volunteers of America, Isham said. The community holds monthly birthday parties for children at the shelter — complete with magicians, food, games and prizes — as well as “plenty of theater, poetry and art.”

The center works closely with the Washoe County School District, where 3,000 students are homeless, she said, and has an array of service providers on campus, including the Community Health Alliance and Good Shepherd Clothes Closet.

“The best thing about being under one roof is that we can take people out of crisis mode and get them to focus on their long-term goals,” she said. “You could spend a whole day going here and there, but now you can do it all in one place with the goal of finding housing and self-sufficiency. It’s common sense.”

Volek, as Billings city administrator, said that her main aim in working to aggregate Billings services is sustainability.

“There is probably some efficiency in putting together groups of people who are providing services separately,” she said.

Any concern about funding or sustainability doesn’t prevent Lynda Woods from sending up what she and Beckett laughingly and lovingly refer to as “Lynda’s rockets of desire.”

Those are “big, grand ideas, but we can do them right here,” said Woods, project coordinator for Billings’ Community Development Division. “Our test is always ‘What is the right thing to do,’ as long as the intentions are pure and good and the rocket benefits the health of the community.”

Past “rockets of desire” have included community gardens and a “Housing First” initiative that, as its name implies, “involves getting people housed first, then providing them services,” Woods said.

“If it’s meant to be,” she said of a campus-style approach to serving homeless and transient people, “it’ll happen.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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