An open house Wednesday at Montana Rescue Mission’s Women and Children’s Shelter gave leaders the chance to talk about not only their immediate remodeling plans, but the changing face of homelessness in Billings.
“We can’t make hard and fast rules anymore, because 21st-century homelessness looks different,” said the Rev. Glenn Fournier, MRM’s program director. One example: He said he’s seen a recent uptick in men with children who need a place to stay, but men are precluded from staying at the women and children’s shelter, at 2520 First Ave. North. They must stay instead at the men’s shelter, 2822 Montana Ave.
Montana Rescue Mission is in the midst of a $100,000 fundraising campaign to remodel the lobby of the women and children’s shelter in part to increase security. Denise Smith, MRM’s marketing and public relations director, said the effort will also include dividing a large sitting room into two smaller rooms where private counseling can occur.
To date, about $56,000 has been raised. Smith said the remodeling work can begin as soon as this winter.
Through Oct. 31, at least 726 women and children have been housed at the shelter during 2017; that total for all of 2016 was 764 women and children. About 60 women and children are guests of the shelter on any given night.
“Safety and security are a big emphasis,” said Perry Roberts, MRM’s executive director. Moving a shelter worker’s desk out by the front door will allow the employee to “buzz” in the people who belong in the shelter.
With typical mid-November nighttime temperatures below 32 degrees, the shelter’s “code blue” policy allows people in from off the streets even when they’re drunk or high. Shelter crews comb Billings streets and alleys to try to convince homeless people to come in and sleep where it’s warm and dry.
On code blue nights, chapels at both the men’s and women and children’s shelters are converted to dormitories.
Fournier said those guests’ intoxication levels are measured to give staff an indication of what challenges they may be facing during the night.
MRM houses, feeds and provides services to its clients on about $3.7 million each year, Smith said — all of it privately raised.
While proposed cutbacks to state programs won’t directly affect MRM, its mission is made more difficult, Roberts noted, because its partners' funding almost certainly will be pared.
“Those cutbacks will impact everyone we work with,” he said, adding, “we are all about connecting people with the resources they need.”
While MRM fundraising efforts are on track, Roberts said that even social media trends can offer formidable competition to Montana Rescue Mission's two Bargain Centers, in the Billings Heights and West End. Sofas that used to be routinely donated to one of the secondhand stores can now be readily sold online by the owner, he said, and store employees must now sift through more and more donations to find enough to stock the shelves with items people want to buy. As a result, the revenue generated by the two bargain centers is down about $200,000 per year.
“The times,” Roberts said, “have caught up with us.”
A shelter from the storm
Smith was happy Wednesday to show off the progress that’s been made on the women and children’s shelter, which has a 129-person capacity but rarely houses more than 100 people per night.
Both of MRM’s shelters are open every day, and both offer meals to their guests, and to others, too, in the case of the men’s shelter. Each shelter also offers a shower for use by guests and by others. All of MRM’s services are free.
In addition to updated dorms and single-family rooms, the women and children’s shelter’s offerings include a kitchen where residents are taught the basics of cooking and dollar-stretching tips.
In an adjacent room, guests can use a computer to take self-paced life skills classes. “They can focus on the part of their life they need to focus on," Smith said.
People staying in the shelter are required to save 80 percent of their income. That arrangement, Smith said, allows guests to come up with first-and last-month's rent and a security deposit to get their own place.
A number of Billings businesses and service clubs have adopted a room at the women and children’s shelter, decorating it in a warm, tasteful way designed to make the guests feel at home.
One room “always makes me tear up,” Smith said. It’s the room where new mothers stay who have been abused or abandoned.
To donate to Montana Rescue Mission, visit www.montanarescuemission.org or phone 406-259-3800.