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Deidre Loftus, left, and Jessi Courier

Deidre Loftus, left, and Jessi Courier are AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers working on a faith initiative for the city of Billings. The pair is focused on connecting faith groups with each other and with service providers that help the city's poor and homeless.

All of the faith communities in Billings that took part in a recent survey say that helping the poor and homeless is woven into the fabric of their religious beliefs.

Of those, 88 percent see the need to collaborate with others to aid the people they’re called to serve. Two AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, who are part of the Billings Metro VISTA Project, are focused on making that happen.

Deirdre Loftus, who came to in Billings in January, and Jessi Courier, who arrived in July, are working for the city of Billings’ Community Development Division. Both are here for one-year stints.

“When I came in January, my main objective was to survey as many faith leaders as possible and figure out what they needed in order to be empowered to help people living in poverty and homelessness,” Loftus said.

She had a master list of about 150 faith communities in more than 35 denominations, which she found online. That included representatives of the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well.

Loftus developed an 11-question survey to learn more about how the faith community reaches out to poverty-stricken people. Her work was in conjunction with city’s 10-year plan to alleviate homelessness.

The questions sought opinions about whether they already collaborate with other faith groups, or if they’d be willing to, in order to help the area’s poor and homeless.

Loftus and Courier conducted focus groups with nearly 20 faith leaders to discuss the results and figure out next steps. Initially Loftus thought the goal would be to form a coalition of faith leaders to together work on social change.

“The focus group wasn’t ready to create something like that,” she said. “They want to be more networked together before creating a group.”

Out of those discussions, and after speaking with service providers who work with the poor and homeless, the two women decided to put together a half-day event.

The Oct. 28 Faith Engagement: Panel Discussion and Resource Fair will connect service providers with faith communities. It will also allow faith leaders to interact with each other.

The morning will feature a trio of panel discussions, with 12 different service agencies, as well as a resource fair featuring 18 additional agencies. It will conclude with a time for participants to network.

The idea, Courier said, is to help organizations work together effectively without duplicating efforts. A lot of services already exist.

“If we could get service agencies and faith communities talking and build relationships, there’s lot of great things that can come out of that,” she said.

In the survey, 92 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that homelessness is a serious problem in Billings. Seventy-two percent believe that the needs of the homeless aren’t being met.

Asked what ministries or services the faith communities provide to people in poverty, the most widespread source of aid is money given to agencies that work with the poor. They include the Montana Rescue Mission, Tumbleweed, Family Service Inc., the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and Community Leadership & Development Inc.

The faith groups also give out gas cards, gift cards, pay for a hotel, motel or rent, and help in other ways. Many of the leaders said they work with Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, a faith-based nonprofit that works to help homeless families get back on their feet.

But with the offer of help to individuals, churches experience a measure of aggravation, as well, Loftus said.

“Most of those people were frustrated with the lack of communication that was occurring between faith communities and service providers,” she said.

They don’t begrudge helping those in need. Instead, they worry that some people work the system, getting all they can from as many sources as possible, leaving little for others in need.

Developing some sort of central clearing house where records of aid given out could be kept might prevent that from happening, Loftus heard during the discussions.

“Nobody wants to stop what they’re doing, but there has been an increase this year for aid across the board in Billings,” she said.

The service providers who will attend the morning are excited to connect with the faith communities, Courier said. Many that were asked to come were frequently mentioned by faith leaders who want to know more about those organizations.

As for the focus on helping people in poverty, Courier said it’s nice to see faith groups able to find common ground.

“It’s interesting that even though some things divide these groups, there’s something that brings them all together,” she said.

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General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.