Homeless in Central Montana – yes, it happens

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Pastor Frank Burns, right, shares a spiritual moment while on a mission to Peru. Burns is part of a group of organizations and agencies working to assist the homeless in the Lewistown area.

Photo courtesy of Frank Burns


Dirty. Disheveled. Unshaven. Someone you wouldn’t want to brush up against while walking down Main Street. You just pictured the stereotypical homeless person seen in photographs from large metropolitan areas. But did you know the homeless also include mothers with children escaping domestic violence, or a foster child who just turned 18, or a clean, young woman whose medication causes more ills than cures?  These, too, are the faces of the homeless and they reside in Montana. 

The 2019 Homeless Survey conducted by the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services and the Montana Human Resource Development Council was distributed amongst various agencies in Lewistown and Roundup in January, to provide a “point in time” view of the homeless throughout the state and Central Montana.

Homelessness, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is, “limited to those sleeping on the streets (or other places not meant for human habitation), in an emergency shelter, in a motel paid by a voucher or in a transitional housing program.” 

The survey provided a snapshot into the lives of the homeless across Montana for the evening of Jan. 31. In Lewistown and Roundup, 60 surveys were distributed to non-profit agencies on Jan. 31.  Three were completed, collected and returned to HRDC by Feb. 6.

The survey included typical questions on gender, age, race, disability and first name of the participant.  More specific questions asked included, “Where did you sleep on Jan. 31?” “How many times and for how long have you been homeless?”  “Did you leave your last place of permanent residence for any of these reasons: inability to pay rent, domestic violence, aged out of foster care, substance abuse, physical or mental health or incarceration?”

According to the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition website, “The purpose of the Montana CoC is to end homelessness in Montana…” The organization works through collaboration, including faith-based groups, current and formerly homeless individuals, and law enforcement.

Bob Buzza, executive director of Montana CoC said, “In Lewistown, HRDC is our biggest player. They do have small to very small government funding from the ‘emergency solutions’ grant. They can use those funds to assist an individual or family into a rapid rehousing.” 

Vanessa Adams, HRDC Housing Program manager, is the local contact for emergency housing assistance. She said, “Emergency housing assistance may be available to help individuals or families with various housing needs, such as helping households who are at-risk of becoming homeless or helping people who are currently homeless.” 

Which leads to the question of who helps the homeless in Central Montana? 

Frank Burns, pastor at the Central Montana Baptist Church and Lewistown’s Salvation Army representative, said he assists two to three people a month who find themselves homeless in Central Montana. They are referred to Burns and the Salvation Army through the Sheriff’s Department, Lewistown Police Department, SAVES or other local agencies, as well as by churches seeking to assist.  

To aid the homeless, Burns relies on local partners.  He said, “We can put people up in a hotel for a night or two. We can also provide vouchers for McDonalds, refer them to the Community Cupboard or to the Variety Store for meal essentials.”  

Lewistown Chief of Police Cory Birdwell said, “a lot of times they (the homeless) show up at the library because of the internet.” He added, “We can take them to the hospital or connect them with the Salvation Army, but many, due to mental illness, choose to be homeless.  It’s very frustrating.”

SAVES Executive Director Naomi Summers, knows only too well this frustration. Many of the homeless she serves are referred to her through law enforcement or the local library. 

“I was called to the library to assist a homeless person,” she recalled. “Basically it’s not an unusual scenario. It’s best to get them to Billings or Great Falls where there is a shelter. With no bus service this can be problematic.” 

For the homeless escaping the threat of a domestic violence situation, Summers said, “I can do up to three nights in a motel, and then basically that is all the funds that I have.”  

Summers said many homeless have family but don’t want to turn to them for help.

“There are a couple of reasons why these recent homeless are reluctant to go to family. Their abuser knows where they are and it can become a dangerous situation, or it can be a matter of pride.”  She added, “If the family has gone through it before, they get tired of helping because they go back to the abuser.”  

Statistics indicate it usually takes seven attempts before someone in an abusive situation finally leaves their abuser. 

In Central Montana’s climate, sometimes homeless individuals also lack suitable clothing. Homeless individuals or families who find themselves without enough clothing are referred to St. Leo’s Catholic Church or the Council on Aging’s Treasure Depot. 

“The Council on Aging has really stepped forward in assisting. Their shuttle has been utilized for emergency homeless for those in need of a ride to Billings or Great Falls,” Burns said. “We provide travel vouchers so people who have a support network, even out-of-state, can get to shelter and assistance.”

Burns noted the generosity of the local community in helping the homeless with the contributions made to the Salvation Army during the Red Kettle Drive.  

“Ninety percent of the emergency food, shelter and vouchers are provided through this drive,”  he said.

 Whether help is provided through an agency referral or a direct contact to the Salvation Army at 366-2982, there is a warm place to stay for the night and a meal for those who are hungry.

Results of the 2019 Homeless Survey have yet to be compiled, but will be used to apply for federal funding. Watch for a follow up story in a future News-Argus detailing the survey findings.





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