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Homeless czar visits nonprofit's Diaper Drive, talks COVID-19 housing crunch

Homeless czar visits nonprofit's Diaper Drive, talks COVID-19 housing crunch

Rain Dillon joined dozens of others lining up at the brick building on South 26th Street Tuesday. The mother of two recently lost her job after contracting COVID-19, but she left with a little relief: diapers courtesy of Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley.

Dillon, like many parents nationwide, has been forced to contend with the dual anxieties of raising a family and keeping them safe during the pandemic. The outbreak has also forced local and national organizations offering relief to the homeless to adopt strategies like drive-through food and clothing drives.

“If I didn’t have this, we wouldn’t even have diapers,” Dillon said.

Homelessness has been on the rise nationwide in recent years, preceding the added economic instability of COVID-19. According to a new plan published by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, unsheltered homelessness increased by nearly 21% between 2014 and 2019. This number includes veterans, spouses leaving abusive household and children still attending school without a home.

The USICH plan, published this month, marks a pivot from the “housing first” policies of the Obama administration. Instead of prioritizing getting people housed with no conditions attached, the new plan aims to “optimize self-sufficiency in homeless assistance programs and reduce reliance on public assistance.”

Robert G. Marbut Jr., the executive director of the USICH, oversaw the completion of the plan after he assumed his role in December 2019. He was also on hand in the Day Center of Family Promise on Tuesday, speaking with staff and occasionally helping to carry donated coats to those waiting outside.

“We want to be able to allow local communities to customize, because what is needed in Billings is different from what is needed in Tallahassee, which is different from Los Angeles,” said Marbut, who has visited more than 30 states in the past 200 days, meeting with local officials combating homelessness.

Montana Rescue Mission Executive Director Matt Lundgren met with Marbut Tuesday morning and showed him the plans for MRM’s new Unified Campus project. As they chatted, Marbut offered ideas on how the mission could structure some of its current shelter to better accommodate individuals and keep them protected from COVID-19.

Rescue Mission receives $6M in federal aid and a deadline to match it

Marbut also told Lundgren to anticipate a rise in the number of homeless people the mission serves. As COVID-19 continues to negatively impact the economy, Marbut told Lundgren more people are likely to need the services offered by the shelter, Lundgren said.

Marbut told the Gazette that the current number of homeless in the United States is just under 225,000 as of Tuesday, a figure that he said came in under expectations. The number of evictions nationally during the pandemic has also been lower than expected by the USICH, but the agency is braced for that to change.

Lisa Donnot, the executive director of Family Promise, said the pandemic brought a spike in local residents looking for emergency housing, many of whom faced evictions after losing their job during the past seven months.

“Now the weather is getting colder, so a lot people who have been sheltering in cars, especially those with children, are looking for a warm place to stay,” she said.

Along with disrupting the lives of the non-profit’s clients, the outbreak also derailed Family Promise’s “Interfaith Hospitality Network.” The program that places families in houses of worship throughout the city closed due to concerns of spreading the virus. The switch to using apartments, hotels and trailers, Donnot said, has produced a “huge waiting list.”

“I personally am really excited to see some changes coming in the future, and I haven’t felt that way in a while,” she said.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole, also present at the day center Tuesday, said the city government depends on non-profit organizations to care for the homeless. That dependence will be tested as temperatures continue to drop, and more people living in a county with the state’s highest number of COVID-19 cases look to Family Promise and the MRM for help.

“With COVID-19 numbers up, we don’t know what winter’s going to look like so far, the rescue mission has been very fortunate in keeping COVID out of its facility, but with the numbers as high as they are, we are just waiting for the other shoe to drop, I’m afraid,” he said.

The “Diaper Drive Through” for Family Promise also provides clothes and other supplies for families in need and runs every Tuesday from 4-6 p.m., and every Friday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Those interested in donating can visit or call 406-294-7432.


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