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Mission tour

City Council members, from right, Al Swanson, Denis Pitman and Mike Yakawich, are given a tour of the Montana Rescue Mission by Denise Smith in October.

Services delivered by the Montana Rescue Mission to Billings’ homeless and transient population are up about 15 percent this year compared to last year, and shelter officials wanted to talk about ways they’re handling the increase — and continued opportunities for collaboration — with city officials Tuesday.

Three City Council members — Denis Pitman, Mike Yakawich and Al Swanson — took a tour of the mission’s men’s shelter then participated in a roundtable discussion with shelter officials.

To date this year, 1,600 people have received shelter services, and officials expect to serve more than 75,000 meals to both their guests, as they’re called, who are staying at the shelter, and to people coming in off the street for a meal. They’ll also provide more than 20,000 showers and medical care to more than 1,300 people.

Five years ago, said the Rev. Glenn Fournier, MRM’s operations director, about 80 percent of guests were Yellowstone County people. Today, he told the group, about 20 percent are residents of the county.

Wherever they call home, nearly 90 percent of those people being served are among the working poor, said Perry Roberts, MRM’s executive director.

“We have seen a lot of people leaving (Bakken oil field work) in Williston and coming back through,” Roberts told the group. “There are now many more people from out of state. That’s not the norm, but it’s the new normal.”

It costs MRM about $19 per day per guest for room and shelter. Meals are served free, but cost MRM $2.05 apiece.

Combined, MRM’s shelters hold 125 people. There are enough mats and cots to expand the capacity to 225 people on very cold nights.

The shelter receives 7-12 tons of donated food every month. MRM’s annual budget is $3.6 million; it’s been operating in the red for the past two years, Roberts said, because donations have been down slightly. Most donations to MRM are $200 or less, he said.

Montana Rescue Mission has participated in the community innovations initiative that’s working to get 74 identified serial inebriates off the streets and into treatment. Tuesday’s tour and roundtable discussion were designed in part to educate elected officials about community services that are already available.

“We want to make sure everyone understands what we already have in our community,” said Denise Smith, who handles MRM’s public relations and marketing. “When people make a decision on what’s missing, they need to have in mind what we already have. People assume there are holes in the system, and there really aren’t.”

“You really need to have your story told,” Swanson told MRM officials after the tour. “I never dreamed you had all this.”

What’s not available in Billings but should be, Roberts said, is a sobering center. It would cost MRM about $350,000 to bring its former Bargain Center adjacent to the men’s shelter into compliance with current building codes, he said.

A sobering center — often called a low-barrier shelter — “would alleviate some of the problem,” Roberts said. “But if you house that population, you will grow that population.” For people that have come to Billings to party or take a short holiday and drink to excess, “if we provide a free place to spend the night, we are encouraging that kind of activity,” he said.

Montana Rescue Mission tests the alcohol level of everyone seeking to spend the night, and allows intoxicated people to stay only on extremely cold nights. During those stays, they’re isolated from others who are working on their sobriety.

“Sadly, many of the people we have served are part of that group of 74 with no desire to live a different life,” Roberts said. “That’s just where they are and there’s nothing you can offer them. They may have a combination of mental illness and treatment issues, and unless they are required to participate, they won’t. They have no desire to get well.”

Asked how the city can partner more effectively with MRM, Roberts suggested city staff and the City Council redouble their lobbying efforts to get the Montana Legislature to pass a law outlawing public intoxication. “Billings and Missoula are the most heavily impacted by public intoxication,” he said. “Maybe we can put forward a better bill next time and get behind that campaign and push it through the Legislature.”

Roberts said MRM let out “a big sigh of relief” when the city’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance failed by a 6-5 vote of the City Council. “It would have made it very difficult for us to provide essential shelter services, doing things that are against our faith values,” he said. “In other communities (that passed similar ordinances) it has not worked well because of the civil penalties involved. I don’t want to see discrimination, but the practicality is, we deal with gender identification issues all the time.”

“We are people of faith, and as people of faith, we recognize others as children of God,” Fournier said. “I have served transgender individuals. Do I need an ordinance to tell me how to do that? No.”

As Billings continues to grow, one of its biggest challenges will be “how we handle the mentally ill. In most states, more than half the folks on the streets would be institutionalized or pushed into a mandatory treatment program,” Roberts said. “But in Montana, there is an unwillingness to place people.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.