Travis Goff sits on a bed in the two-bedroom apartment he lives in at the downtown Billings Montana Rescue Mission.
As he tells his story his hands shake, the result of a severe electrical shock he suffered 22 years ago as he rescued a toddler from drowning. He spent part of his recovery at the Rescue Mission.
In 1999, he survived a major car wreck that killed three people. Goff used alcohol to mask his pain, but he eventually returned to the Rescue Mission to find his way.
Now he lives and works at the mission, giving back what he has gotten.
“I’m trying to return the favor to these guys who have helped me,” Goff said.
In a sense, Goff is the face of the Christian ministry to the homeless, a man who has reclaimed his life with the help of the staff, his faith and his desire to help others.
The mission of the Montana Rescue Mission is to “provide emergency, temporary care and rehabilitative services from a distinctly Christian perspective for those seeking help and solutions.”
It’s summed up in three alliterative words: rescue, recover and restore.
The Rescue Mission, which includes two shelter sites and administrative offices in a third building, employs 76 people and has an annual operating budget of nearly $3.7 million.
The mission provided shelter to nearly 2,300 people in 2014, or, on average, 64 people a night. It served meals to more than 3,400 people — at least 40 percent who weren’t residents — and gave away more than 2,700 articles of clothing and household items.
Since it first incorporated 60 years ago, the Rescue Mission has reinvented itself, revamping its look and its policies, to stay current with the needs of its clients, who are referred to as “guests.”
For instance, the bed configuration at the men’s shelter, at 2822 Minnesota Ave., and at what’s now called the Women’s and Children’s Shelter at 2520 First Ave. N., have changed over time, to provide better incentives to guests who stay at the two centers.
A policy change last fall now allows active drinkers to stay at the men’s shelter. And men are no longer allowed to stay at the Women’s and Children’s Shelter because of the problems that has caused in the past.
Nothing is done without serious thought and discussion, said MRM Executive Director Perry Roberts.
“Some people wonder why we’ve changed,” said Roberts, sitting in a conference center at the nonprofit’s headquarters, across the street from the men’s shelter. “We’re committed to seeking better solutions always instead of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ ”
One change came last fall, when Rescue Mission officials preparing for the winter months reassessed their policy on letting those actively drinking in. The decision was made to allow them in and keep them segregated from other guests.
As the downtown community grapples with the problem of chronic homelessness, MRM adapted to address problems downtown, when bitter cold weather made it difficult to find shelter for that population.
Those using alcohol are the last in at night and the first to leave in the morning, after they are provided breakfast.
“Not everybody can come in,” Roberts said. “It depends on our past experiences with the individual, and some who, because of the things they’ve done here, are not welcomed back.”
Another shift at the men’s shelter came with the recognition that the Rescue Mission actually serves two populations. One is the program-level guests, who require long-term assistance to work on issues in their lives that keep them from succeeding on their own.
“We also recognized that we had a lot of homeless in Billings, and that their primary goal was to get re-housed as quickly as possible,” Roberts said.
With that latter group, the focus became helping them find employment and save money to work toward living on their own. Dan Voss falls into that category.
On a recent day, Voss sat at a table in the basement cafeteria reading a book and eating a meal of a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, vegetable soup and macaroni.
Voss arrived at the rescue mission Feb. 13 and was expecting his first paycheck on the day he was interviewed.
“My goal is to get back on my feet and get an apartment,” Voss said, adding that his stay at the mission is helping him do that.
Men like Voss sleep in a dorm that houses 25 bunks with 50 beds. They have use of a large locker-style bathroom and shower area, and they eat in the cafeteria.
One requirement of these guests is that once they have a job, they have to agree to put money into savings toward future off-campus housing.
“If they continually don’t put money away, they will be asked to leave,” Roberts said. "This is what they told us they wanted, so we'll hold them accountable to pursuing that course."
Goff, and his roommate, Barry Welsh, are part of the former group, who take part in the New Life program designed to help them succeed. Both men live and work at the mission and are enrolled in the mission’s Service Leadership Institute program.
New Life candidates live in a 14-bed dorm. Once they qualify for the program, they move into an eight-bed dorm, and graduates move into the transitional dorm, which has three beds and more perks they’ve earned for their hard work.
Welsh, a convicted felon who couldn’t find a job, lived off the inheritance from his parents until the money ran out. He moved into the rescue mission in October 2013.
“It got me a job and somebody to trust in me — that was the big thing,” he said, sitting at the front desk where he checks in other guests. “And then I found God. I was an atheist before that, so that was a big thing, too.”
The camaraderie he’s found there also has been important to Welsh, who previously lived an isolated existence.
“It brought me out of my shell,” Welsh said. “I hope to work here, to move up.”
After Goff suffered the electrical shock and third-degree burns more than two decades ago, his injuries kept him from working for two years, and he recuperated at the Rescue Mission. Then the 1999 crash sent him into a downward spiral of drinking to escape his pain, “which caused more problems than actually solving them.”
“When I came back in 2010 I knew I had a safe place to live and food and shelter and a place to work,” Goff said. “Now I actually am living for Christ instead of just trying to get by day to day.”
In 2007, the Montana Rescue Mission launched a capital campaign to consolidate all of its services in a campus along South 25th Street, just east of RiverStone Health. The $7 million project would have brought both shelters, the administrative offices and a playground, under one roof.
The three-story Women’s and Children’s Shelter was turning away two or three families a day because there wasn’t enough room. The same was true of the men’s shelter, with an estimated 20 men a night sleeping on the floor. On top of that, neither shelter was handicapped-accessible.
But the nonprofit’s leaders had to go another route when an economic slowdown crippled the fundraising efforts.
“In the fall of 2008, the shoe dropped on the economy and we abandoned hope of getting the funding,” Roberts said. “The existing buildings were falling into disrepair because of not wanting to invest in them.”
Instead, the mission raised $400,000 from a variety of sources to make repairs and improvements at both shelters. A number of community groups and churches also donated money and labor to decorate rooms at the Women’s and Children’s Shelter.
In hindsight, had the capital campaign succeeded, Roberts said, the result would likely have been too many beds for the need that exists today with the growing number of agencies that provide housing.
But ongoing needs still require attention at the two shelters. The kitchen in the basement of the men’s shelter will undergo $40,000 worth of renovations this spring to bring it up to code.
And work continues at the Women’s and Children’s shelter after two separate cast-iron sewer pipe breaks, on July 3 and 5, 2013, flooded the east and west ends of the building. The ruptures damaged several parts of the building, and also disrupted the women and children staying there.
In 2011, an average of 79 individuals stayed the night at the Women’s and Children’s Shelter, that number dropped to 21 in 2014 although that figure is rising, Roberts said.
A lot of work has been done to replace sewer pipes, and fix and improve the damaged individual rooms and dorms. Other repairs await financial donations or adoption by groups.
Meals are delivered from the men’s shelter and served in the dining room. The kitchen remains an unfinished shell, requiring extensive repairs before it can put back into service.
The mission offers rooms for mothers and children at one shelter and space for husbands and fathers at the other.
“That allows us to work with each parent with their needs and bring them together for counseling as a couple,” Roberts said. “They do have family time and can share meals together.”
Like the men’s shelter, women and families begin their stay in entry-level dorms and then move into other rooms as they meet goals set out for them. They can stay as long as they move forward in steps and programs designed to help them become self-sufficient.
One guest, Suzette Plenty Hawk, had her arms full on a recent Wednesday, moving her belongings from the first floor dorm to her own room on the second floor. Plenty Hawk, who works the graveyard shift at Denny’s Restaurant, is glad to have a little more privacy.
Having a safe place to live also will allow her to save money toward a place of her own.
“If this wasn’t here I’d probably be out on the streets trying to find somewhere to live,” she said.
The Montana Rescue Mission continues to evolve. In December it partnered with Harvest Church on a community center, at 2804 Minnesota Ave., in the building that once housed Granny’s Attic and reverted back to the rescue mission.
The community center, operated by volunteers, offers the homeless a place to find a cup of coffee or soup, someone to chat with and the opportunity to learn about services available to them.
The future of the Grany’s Attic building — actually seven buildings cobbled together — is under discussion. Built circa 1890, an upgrade would require a tremendous investment.
The rescue mission also owns another 12,000-square-foot building directly behind the men’s shelter, once home to one of the bargain centers, that’s structurally sound and could be used in many ways — as a sobering center, as an emergency shelter for intact families in the midst of a financial crisis.
It could also part of a campus setting that could tie all of the Montana Rescue Mission’s services together in closer proximity.
“If the funding is obtainable, we would love to bring our kitchen out of the basement next door and create a community dining room here,” Roberts said.
Rescue mission officials are in the process of revising their three-year strategic plan and looking at possibilities for the next five or 10 years. Their focus, as “an organization of mercy and grace,” he said, will continue to be on how to best serve the homeless.
“Our effort is to not fill beds,” Roberts said. “It’s to help people move forward at their pace, not ours.”