BOZEMAN — Just days before Christmas, a Bozeman nonprofit agency has leased a warehouse it hopes will become a “warming center” to shelter homeless people this winter.
Heather Grenier, special projects director for the Human Resource Development Council, said the warehouse is in a good location, in an industrial area just around the corner from the Gallatin Valley Food Bank.
“We're very excited,” Grenier said Wednesday, shortly after the lease was signed. “It was definitely a challenge getting a place.”
Before work starts on the warming center, the location must pass muster with city officials to make sure it meets building, fire, safety and planning codes. An inspection was scheduled this week.
Asked if he foresaw major problems, Tim McHarg, the city's new planning director, said, “We certainly hope not, but until we've gone out and inspected the unit, it's impossible to say.”
Donations have totaled $9,700 in the 12 days since it was reported that the Greater Gallatin Homeless Action Coalition decided to raise money for a no-frills warming center, Grenier said. Individual donations have ranged from $5 to $1,000.
“I think that's wonderful,” Grenier said. “It shows there's support from the community.”
Grenier stressed that committee members plan to knock on neighboring businesses' doors to reassure them about the shelter plans, which include having a paid staff on duty and a security agency. She asked that the exact location not be reported immediately, so the group has a chance to talk to business owners.
“We're going to make every effort to get in touch with the neighborhood,” she said.
The homeless coalition decided to open a shelter for three months to make sure no one freezes to death in Bozeman this winter. That happened nearly four years ago in January 2007 when a 44-year-old homeless man died in a U-Haul truck during brutally cold weather.
Coalition members also say the pilot project will provide important data on how many people use a shelter, who uses it and how often. The information would allow the community to make better decisions about what Bozeman actually needs, before investing large amounts in a homeless shelter that may only be used by a handful of people, Grenier said.
The plan is to have the warming center open every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for three months. It would offer people a bare-bones place to sleep, with heat and bathrooms, but no showers or meals, which are available elsewhere. People would sleep in sleeping bags on cots or floor mats. It would be open to men, women and families.
Finding a place to lease took longer than expected. Although there are “a plethora” of vacant warehouses, Grenier said, owners of four places turned her down. Owners expressed concerns about loitering, security and losing other tenants.
No one was willing to rent for just the three months the warming center is planned to be open, so HRDC signed a two-year lease, Grenier said. Rent is just more than $1,000 a month for 1,600 square feet plus a loft.
After the three-month pilot project ends, the space could be used as storage for the food bank, which HRDC also operates, Grenier said. Or it might continue to be used as a shelter, if that's what the community needs.
The Homeless Action Coalition includes representatives from HRDC, Greater Gallatin United Way, Salvation Army, United Methodist Church, Help Center, Bozeman Job Service and other groups and individuals.
Ron Brey, retired assistant city manager, has been a great help, Grenier said, volunteering to work with city departments and police.
The coalition's goal is to open the shelter by Jan. 1. Members plan to ask the City Commission on Jan. 3 to help by matching private donations.
Job openings for three staff members have been posted at the Job Service and people have started to apply. Interviews are scheduled Tuesday.
Grenier said she had heard “a little backlash” Wednesday from the community about homeless people who choose that as a lifestyle. She said the coalition's focus is to help people who end up homeless through no fault of their own, but they wouldn't turn others away.
“There are a lot of folks I'm aware of who cannot function in normal society or a normal work environment,” Grenier said.
The wish list of items needed for the warming center includes cots, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, tables and chairs, a couple desks, and any kind of games or children's items. They are being collected by HRDC, at 32 S. Tracy Ave., Bozeman, MT 59715.
“What's really important is every part of the community is involved in some way, shape or form,” Grenier said. “I'm just really excited so many partners have come together so quickly.”
Bozeman's first homeless shelter, Amos House, had to stop offering overnight stays this summer because donations weren't sufficient to maintain a paid staff and too few homeless men were staying overnight. Paul Thomas, who has been feeding Bozeman's homeless since 2000, still does so and provides other services from Amos House.