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It’s not like homelessness in Billings has come to an end.

But the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness has, sunsetting this month after 10 years of trying a number of initiatives to reduce human suffering among those with no other place to go.

Many of those initiatives — Spare Change for Real Change, the Billings Home Center, and the Community Innovations program — are still in place, and have no foreseeable end.

“It is bittersweet knowing we are sunsetting this program,” said Sue Runkle, homeless education liaison for School District 2 and the current — and final — committee chair. “But there are still opportunities to volunteer for agencies and social service organizations that can use your help.”

Ten years ago, Billings was selected by the Montana Council on Homelessness as a pilot site. The selection began a 10-year process with the goal of creating a replicable plan to impact homelessness in Billings. Welcome Home Billings, the city's 10-year plan, gained approval by the Billings City Council in October 2009.

Thursday was a celebration held at the Billings Public Library to mark the decade of homeless initiatives. Among them is the 170 Billings Metro VISTAs who worked at more than 40 host sites over the past decade. Recent college graduates all, VISTAs have helped raise more than $3.5 million to fight poverty.

Among their initiatives, they created a resource map and notepads to connect homeless residents with the services available, printing and distributing 31,500 of the former and 1,240 of the latter.

They also recorded interviews with people experiencing homelessness and helped enlist the faith community to fight homelessness with a united front.

About 40 percent of VISTAs have remained in Billings following their one-year commitment, said City Administrator Tina Volek.

“Much credit should go to the volunteers, the organizations that supported them and to the city’s Community Development Division, which helped coordinate activities,” Volek said. “The results have been astounding, crossing every facet from fundraising to food security to education, housing and veterans’ affairs.”

“I am proud of you, and the people you have helped are proud of you,” Mayor Tom Hanel told a crowd of about 50 people, many of whom have served on the committee over the past decade. “The city of Billings is a better place because of your help.”

Downtown Billings Alliance Executive Director Lisa Harmon, the committee’s first chair, said she remembered 10 years ago hearing her name offered in nomination for chairperson.

"There was a second, and they gave me the gavel,” she said. “It has been a beautiful collaboration that has changed the way we think about the things we are up against.”

“We have engaged the business community to help end homelessness and ease human suffering,” Harmon said. “That is a ripple effect that I hope will last forever in the city.”

Brenda Beckett, who manages the city’s Community Development Division, said the committee’s initiatives have created new housing opportunities to end homelessness for more than 100 people.

“Looking toward the future,” she said, “I am confident that our amazing community will continue to rise to the challenge of serving those in need.”



City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.