In the midst of last year’s bitterly cold winter, Tumbleweed Executive Director Sheri Boelter was facing a crisis.
“We had six kids sleeping outside when it was minus 20 degrees,” Boelter told a crowd at First United Methodist Church on Tuesday morning. “One was sleeping in a cave, and one had a plan of killing himself.”
Boelter, who heads the agency that helps homeless youth and families in crisis, was on one of three four-member panels of service providers. All the speakers talked about their missions and their needs to members of the faith community.
Still other organizations set up booths to get out the word about their work. It was all part of the Faith Engagement service provider panel discussion and resource fair, designed to seek solutions to help the poor and homeless in Billings.
The event was the first of its kind organized by two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers who are part of the Billings Metro VISTA Project. It was geared to bringing faith communities and service providers together.
The two VISTA volunteers, Deirdre Loftus and Jessi Courier, also emceed Tuesday’s event.
Earlier this year, the pair surveyed faith communities to see how they reach out to people living in poverty and homelessness, then followed that up with focus groups. That, plus meetings with service providers, inspired them to organize an event to boost networking among those who help the poor.
The first panel Tuesday, on shelter, included Boelter, Lisa Donnot of Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, MarCee Neary of the Crisis Center, and Perry Roberts from the Montana Rescue Mission and Women and Family Shelter.
The two other panels included representatives from agencies that offer support to people in poverty and those who provide relief services. During breaks, participants had the opportunity to visit tables where they could pick up additional information.
Boelter said that within the past year, her private nonprofit began to reach out and embrace the faith community “because we couldn’t do this on our own.”
“Our homeless numbers are increasing incredibly,” she said. “We’re seeing way more families in severe crisis.”
To help the six homeless teens, Bolter went on a local radio show, and the DJ invited her to meet with his pastor, the Rev. Kalen Brown of City Church. Brown asked Boelter what she needed.
A home where the youth could stay, she said. He told her he had one.
“Literally, that saved the day,” Boelter said.
Some panel members, like Donnot, talked about the partnerships that already exist. Family Promise works directly with 26 congregations to temporarily house homeless families, while her organization helps them to achieve independence.
Others, like Neary, expressed enthusiasm when an audience member asked whether the Crisis Center could use volunteers in the evenings to work with clients. The center provides 24-hour crisis stabilization for people who need it.
Brown, the City Church pastor, sat in the audience during the panel. He expressed a sentiment echoed by other ministers about the need for better coordination. Churches, he said, are often understaffed and uncertain who they should or shouldn’t help, and how to avoid duplication of efforts.
“It would be nice if we could create a hub that helps coordinate the whole package, and even the church could send money to every month, that would help us with expertise and knowledge and resources,” Brown said.
Service providers spent the morning talking about the work they do and the needs they have, either financially or for volunteers. They also explained the services they provide, and some took the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings.
Roberts said the Montana Rescue Mission is a sober-living facility that doesn’t allow in people who are inebriated or under the influence of drugs.”
“We put heavy emphasis on rescue and recovery, and we have people there trying to maintain sobriety,” he said. “And people who are not sober present a challenge to them.”
But when temperatures drop below freezing, he said, everyone is welcome to stay the night. Those who aren’t sober are allowed to stay for one night, “and if they come back sober, they can engage our services.”
One woman asked the panel that if each agency could get one type of help — volunteers or money or specific help — what would it be? The answers ranged from small to very large.
Roberts said the one thing the mission buys most for its homeless population is socks and underwear. Boelter said Tumbleweed could use another house.
Neary said a second floor expansion to the Crisis Center would be a great help. Donnot said Family Promise always could use more diapers and wipes for the families they serve — “and a new building.”
Family Promise goes through 5,000 diapers every three months, some of which go to people outside the program. She told of one woman whose day care center wouldn’t take her child without the diapers, and without child care, the woman couldn’t work.
“I said leave the baby and tell them I’m on my way,” Donnot said. “That mommy got to continue working, which let her make the money she needs.”
After the first panel, additional chairs were added to handle the overflow crowd. During the break, Courier said seeing that many people “surpassed my expectations.”
She hopes what began on Tuesday will continue long after the day ends.
“I want to see people having productive conversations today and continuing these conversations after today,” she said.
Jo Rowland, parish nurse at Harvest Church, said Harvest has a huge community focus, so Tuesday’s event helped her educate herself further on what’s available in the community and where the needs are.
The Rev. Steve Gordon, pastor at Mayflower Congregational Church, said it’s sometimes difficult to know how to respond to the needs of people. Working together is the best way for that to happen, he said.
“Maybe we have a different theology,” he said. “But we can agree on taking care of the poor and finding the most effective ways to accomplish it together.”