Starting over was a humbling experience for Nadine Bayly and her children.
Bayly, 35, fell into homelessness the way an increasing number of families do — a loss of income that leads to a loss of housing. Leaning on her parents for support in Montana was no longer an option. With nowhere else to go, Bayly and four of her children lived in a one-room apartment at the Montana Rescue Mission Women’s and Family Shelter in Billings beginning in late September.
It wasn’t long ago when Bayly and her husband, Vic, 38, were taking their five children on vacation to Disney World. But life in Montana divided the family. Vic set out for Florida looking for work and affordable housing for the family while Bayly's oldest daughter, 15, stayed with a family member in her hometown of Milford, Del.
“Our whole world was crumbling around us,” Bayly said. “But slowly, we are picking up the pieces.”
When Maddie Bayly, 12, was told that she and her family were moving into a shelter, she imagined a big open space filled with "old men with long beards lying on cots."
But to her surprise, the Baylys were one of 10 families living at the shelter, at 2520 First Ave. N. in downtown Billings.
“The American family is the new face of homelessness in Billings,” said Perry Roberts, executive director at Montana Rescue Mission. “Families with children are the fastest-growing segment of homeless people in Billings.”
By early December, the Women’s and Family Shelter had served 819 children, up from 560 in all of 2011. Children account for 35 percent of individuals served by the mission.
Roberts said a “perfect storm” of an influx of population, a soft economy and a lack of affordable housing have led to a sharp increase in homeless families in Billings.
The homeless population that has relocated to Billings is largely from out of state, Roberts said, adding that it’s a recent phenomenon. “We’re seeing more new faces with children than ever before,” he said.
In 2012, 63 percent of people who have stayed at the mission’s two shelters have been from out of state. Twenty-four percent have been in Billings for three to five years, Roberts said.
In sharp contrast, 90 percent of people served at the mission were from the area in 2008-2009.
The Rev. Glenn Fournier, the men’s shelter manager at 2822 Minnesota Ave., said people coming from out of state are often lured to Billings by the booming oil industry in Montana and North Dakota. Fournier described the scenario as a modern-day gold rush. And just as with other boom cycles, not everyone finds fortune.
Even so, the causes of homelessness are myriad, often complicated by mental illness or substance abuse, Roberts said.
“A lot of people are at a tipping point — so many lives are right on the edge,” Roberts said. “Proximate cause may be a job loss or medical bills, but usually the story is much deeper.”
Emergency shelter by default
MarCee Neary, Community Crisis Center program director, said that in recent weeks the center has as many as 20 people waiting for services on any given day.
Once the waiting lobby area just inside the front door is full, the line of people waiting spills outside.
“We’re beyond our capacity, and our numbers continue to grow,” Neary said. “And we’re not even to the coldest of months yet.”
The crisis center provides 24/7 emergency services for people who are mentally ill, chemically dependent or both. People turned away from the mission for being intoxicated are often referred to the center.
“By default, the center has become an emergency shelter during winter months,” Roberts said. “But the center isn’t designed or equipped to be a shelter.”
This year, 78 percent of people served by the crisis center are homeless or at risk of being homeless, a 13 percent increase from 2011, Neary said. “It’s a real problem.”
And like the mission, the center has seen a lot of new faces. The center has served people from 36 states and 38 of Montana’s 56 counties since 2007. The majority of those have been in the past two years.
At the end of November, the mission began to relax its procedures and its zero-alcohol policy to help alleviate the crisis center’s burden. As many as 90 men filled the beds at the shelter toward the end of the month.
“We have guidelines, but we have to make exceptions,” Roberts said. “It’s designed around one theme: We don’t want anyone on the streets during freezing weather.”
On the edge
An estimated 2,655 people in Billings had a brush with homelessness in 2011, more than a 10 percent increase from 2010, according to Andrew Proctor, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer working with the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness in the Community Development Office.
The numbers are based on the annual Point-In-Time survey, taken during the Project Community Connect outreach program at the end of January as part of the homelessness committee's work. The nationwide survey asks where people slept on the night before the survey and is intended to gauge the nature and extent of homelessness.
Carmen Gonzalez, team leader of the Mental Health Center’s P.A.T.H. program (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness), says the question of where someone last slept is the most important one she asks every Tuesday and Thursday evening, when she and other program representatives hit the streets.
Gonzalez said families are the least-visible segment of homeless population, staying in their cars or with their friends or families. “Billings’ homeless aren’t just addicts and alcoholics like many people may think.”
At the core, she said, the growing segment of homeless families is driven by poverty and a lack of affordable housing in Billings.
“It’s not just one paycheck away for a lot of these people, it’s one instance away from homelessness,” she said. “It just takes one thing to unravel everything.”
On Nov. 6, Gonzalez identified 34 homeless people during her outreach efforts. Of those, 28 were new faces.
On Dec. 11, she reached 25 people — 14 she had never seen, 10 of whom were women.
In six outreach nights from October through December, 87 of 139 identified homeless people were new faces. “The number of people that we have never come in contact with is real surprising,” Gonzalez said.
P.A.T.H representatives drive around to six identified homeless camps and some of the city’s cheaper hotels to hand out blankets, coats and sack dinners. Another important component of the outreach effort is to inform people of the services available to them.
“Homelessness is a community problem that requires communitywide solutions,” Gonzalez said.
The Bakken effect
Josh Hall, the P.A.T.H outreach liaison at South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center, said his team has come in contact with a large influx of families and couples who have flocked to Billings and North Dakota for what they call "liquid gold."
“They call themselves Bakken refugees,” Hall said.
These people hear about high-paying jobs with the oil field industry, save up just enough for a bus ticket and head this way.
“It’s safe to assume these people are already coming from poverty,” Hall said. “They hear about promises of jobs and fortune. Once they get here, they have just nickels and dimes to their name.”
Mark and Connie Doak, who left Flint, Mich., arrived in Billings early in the morning on Dec. 3, down to their last $62. They had been floating between the homes of family and friends and camping out in the scrapyard of Mark's former boss.
Mark had lost his job as a diesel mechanic in November after 11 years of employment. His boss was diagnosed with cancer and closed up shop.
Without a cushion for backup, Connie did an Internet search for the most affordable cities in the nation. Billings came up in the top 10 listed, with affordable housing and a lot of job opportunities, she said.
“We bought bus tickets and headed this way the next day,” Connie said.
Back in Flint, shelters are full and the local newspaper has few job listings, she said.
“We were at a total loss,” Mark said. “Our move here was out of desperation.”
They said they had heard about the oil field and coal mine jobs in the area. Mark thought he would find work in no time.
When they stepped off the Greyhound bus in Billings, it was just after 1 a.m. The Women’s and Family Shelter, just around the corner, required a copy of their marriage license for the couple to stay, which they didn’t have. And because they didn’t want to split between the men’s and women’s shelters for the night, the crisis center took them in.
To their dismay, finding jobs and affordable housing hasn’t been so easy, but they're intent on sticking it out. Now, they're awaiting the outcome of their application for Section 8 housing.
“Billings is our home now,” Mark said. “We are hopeful for a new start here.”
“People coming here are disillusioned with the thought that there are a lot of jobs,” Neary said. “Once they get here, it seems they can’t find work or aren’t qualified for jobs and are just not able to make ends meet. It’s a spiral into homelessness.”
Further exacerbating matters in Billings is a lack of affordable housing. The estimated cost of living in 2012 is 104 percent of the national average. According to Billings Community Development, the city is the fifth-fastest-growing housing market in the nation, yet has one of the tightest housing markets with a 2.4 percent rental vacancy rate.
Bob Buzzas, coordinator of the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition for the Homeless, said that Montana homelessness has been steadily increasing since the economy dove into a recession in 2009.
“We never quite recovered from that, and then throw an oil boom on top of it, the homeless number is just reinforced,” Buzzas said.
He said there isn’t data to back up the Bakken's direct effect on homelessness in Billings, but he said all the anecdotal information points in that direction.
With information gathered from last year’s Point-In-Time survey, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a slight decline in the nation’s overall homelessness in 2012. That wasn't true in Montana, however. HUD statistics showed a 4 percent increase here.
As the numbers grow and the demographics change, an extensive network of programs and agencies offers everything from child care to subsidized housing and mental health care. Still, demand outstrips supply.
“The services this community offers are great, but the bottom line is that there isn’t enough help to serve the amount of homeless people we have,” Hall said.
While Bayly waited for her husband to bring the rest of the family to Florida, she found help that she didn't expect to seek.
“I never thought I’d be living in a shelter with my children,” she said. “But we had nowhere else to go."
On Dec. 12, Bayly loaded her family’s bags onto the Greyhound bus headed for Florida to reunite with her husband. Vic found work and an affordable apartment to rent, she said. The final few weeks in Billings were spent coming up with enough money for bus tickets for herself and four children.
“Some people just need a little give in life,” she said. “We felt stuck and helpless. But with help and support from the community, life has taken a turn for the better.”