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HUB lunch

Mental Health Center staff and volunteers serve a Cinco de Mayo lunch in the HUB parking lot on May 3. More than 170 people enjoyed the free, festive meal.

Montana Rescue Mission sheltered 2,538 different men, women and children between January 2017 and April 2018. Altogether, including folks who came in for meals or other help without spending a night, the mission served 6,066 people.

Those numbers give us a sense of the magnitude of this community’s homelessness. Montana’s largest city draws impoverished jobseekers and other needy people from throughout the region. Thirty-eight percent of the people aided were “new arrivals to Yellowstone County” who had been here less than 30 days when they came to the mission’s men’s or women and children’s shelters, according MRM data.

Just over half of those served by the mission at its Minnesota Avenue or First Avenue North shelters were white, 28 percent Native American, 15 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic. The number served includes 299 U.S. military veterans.

Our great city has services for those in need, but demand has outstripped capacity. MRM and other local nonprofits are continually trying to adapt to changing community needs, but they require support from caring individuals and responsive government.

Last winter, the mission provided 187 “Code Blue” individuals with 1,367 nights of chapel shelter on sub-freezing nights when they were too intoxicated to be regularly admitted. Montana Rescue Mission is in “the very early stages of creating a low-barrier shelter to continue Code Blue year-round,” Executive Director Perry Roberts told The Gazette. “There’s a need in the community for a place to come into to be safe year-round.”

“I’ve been around this for 15 years; there’s ebb and flow. Now it’s as bad as I can remember,” Roberts said when asked about an increase in the local homeless population. “I don’t know what the cause is. Our guest population is younger than it was five years ago, there’s more mental illness.”

“As our city grows, so does our population; it challenges us to do more,” said Lisa Harmon, who was part of Community Innovations addressing homelessness in Billings starting in 2014 when she led Downtown Billings. Now she is working at Billings First Church as minister of healing and community transformation.

Josiah Hugs, the Motivated Addictions Alternate Program outreach worker, regularly holds “talking circles” at the church at Third Avenue North and North 27th Street. Those circles provide culturally appropriate support for Native Americans in addiction recovery, but non-Natives are welcome, too.

Every day people walk into Billings First Church seeking help with transportation, refuge from domestic violence or other problems, Harmon said. The church is remodeling space to house other services for marginalized community members.

Harmon is concerned about the lack of affordable housing and insufficient funding for health and human services. Sober housing is a great need, she said.

“The longer people are on the streets, the more dangerous it is for them,” Harmon said. “We need to intervene early.”

Two blocks north on 27th Street, Carmen Gonzalez leads the Mental Health Center’s homeless outreach team of three other PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) workers. In recent months, the team has been nearly overwhelmed by the number of people seeking help. Part of the increase is due to the state eliminating funding for Medicaid case management. Mentally ill adults who need help finding housing, health care and other services have lost their navigators, so they turn to Gonzalez’s federally funded PATH team. Some of the new clients have been discharged from Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs — sent back to Billings where state cuts have reduced community care.

“We can’t do this by ourselves,” Gonzalez said. “We need the community.”

Montana Rescue Mission, Billings First Church and the Mental Health Center are among many local organizations trying to meet needs of people who are homeless here. It will take our whole city working together to move people from homeless to hopeful.

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