Billings has more resources than many communities to help end homelessness, but there is always a shortage of available shelter.
Estimates from local agencies say 2,400 people have been homeless in Billings at some time during the past year.
That doesn’t mean they’ve all been on the streets. Many are in shelters, temporary housing or doubled up with friends or relatives.
Almost every night this year, the Montana Rescue Mission for Men and the Women’s and Family Shelter have 100 guests each.
“We’re full or near full most of the time now,” said Gary Drake, director of development at the mission. “We don’t see the seasonal ups and downs anymore.”
He’s also counting more locals than folks from out of town.
Their numbers outpace local resources, although progress has been made on several fronts by an impressive number of city nonprofit organizations, churches and federal, state and local authorities dedicated to ending homelessness.
“We’re housing them as fast as we can, as best we can,” said Carmen Gonzalez, P.A.T.H. team lead at the Billings Mental Health Center.
Local efforts go beyond merely finding a roof, although most experts concede that’s the best place to start. It’s an address to put on a job application and a place to clean up before an interview. It’s a safe place to do homework and a settling influence on scattered lives.
Its chief advantage may be that having a place to go at night is a major stress reliever, Gonzalez said. The security of a permanent home can give much-needed confidence to do what it takes to move ahead, she said.
Much of the burden to house the homeless and other low-income Billings residents rests with the Billings Housing Authority.
“We help about 1,500 families and individuals for a total about 4,500 people,” executive director Lucy Brown said.
Through rent-subsidy programs, the Housing Authority spreads $4.5 million annually among local landlords.
Section 8 housing vouchers are one of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most effective tools. Under its terms, recipients of the vouchers must pay 30 percent of their income for housing and the Billings Housing Authority picks up the rest.
Almost all of these renters have some income, Brown said. Only 6 percent with Section 8 vouchers are on public assistance. Some have Social Security or disability income, but most hold down one or more low-paying jobs.
The Billings Housing Authority distributes 1,139 rental vouchers, including 60 earmarked for homeless veterans. But the waiting list can be nine months to 2-1/2 years long, depending on the program and the size of the household. As of the end of December, 2,734 applicants were on the waiting list, Brown said.
Hardest to house are the chronically mentally ill, she said. The Housing Authority has a special program in conjunction with the Mental Health Center, to serve 25 people who fall into that category. The Mental Health Center provides case management for these clients. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides case management for homeless veterans in the program.
In addition to private landlords, the Housing Authority rents 435 public housing units and is working with private investors enticed by tax credits to build more.
Finding a privately owned rental acceptable to the Housing Authority isn’t always easy, especially for those with a bad credit history, a criminal record or no financial acumen, such as youths aging out of foster care or families who have lived in poverty for generations.
“Not everybody on the list can get a place,” Brown said.
Several programs throughout the city are designed to help the homeless stay once they’ve found a rental. That can include everything from assisting in obtaining more education and job skills to simply learning that you can’t let friends move in and trash the place. Case mangers for the mentally ill homeless can act a liaison between landlords and tenants. Most programs require some form of accountability from their clients, which can include showing up on schedule for appointments, looking for employment or attending classes or therapy.
Gwynn Pederson of the Billings Mental Health Center said she hopes to develop a Safe Haven Project — no-fail housing — for more of the chronically homeless in Billings.
HUD’s definition of chronically homeless includes individuals or families with a disabling condition who have been continually homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
The chronically homeless make up 12 percent of the homeless in Billings, compared with the national average of 10 percent. Of the total, 97 percent have a disability. Because of mental illness, developmental disability, physical disability or substance abuse, they are the hardest to place.
But they are also the most expensive to leave on the streets.
Cost to the public for the general homeless population is about $15,534 each, a 2007 study of Billings’ homeless population showed. But for the chronically homeless, who frequently use ambulances, emergency rooms and crisis intervention, and who are often hospitalized, institutionalized or jailed, the cost to taxpayers is about $115,690 each. The same study estimated the cost of homelessness in Billings at more than $54 million a year.