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Helena Has No Plans for Housing Unsheltered This Winter

A working group formed three months ago to create possible emergency shelter options for the city’s unhoused population during the days of the winter months. A storm rolled across Montana this week and the group still has no plans.

While a storm dumped inches of snow outside, representatives of a working group formed months ago to generate potential emergency shelter options for this winter told the Helena, Mont., City Commission they have no immediate solution for housing the city's unsheltered during the day.

The administrative meeting took place Wednesday afternoon in City-County Building room 326, a large-but-cramped conference room lined with windows facing the building's roof and west wing.

The city commissioners in early August offered up $100,000 in savings generated by American Rescue Plan Act spending to fund a viable solution.

But United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area Community Impact Coordinator Jeff Buscher, who heads the working group, called the last three months a "painstaking process."

"We didn't get into this situation overnight," Buscher said. "It takes time to do things right."

Doing things right has included five public meetings, soliciting feedback from downtown business owners, inspecting possible buildings with city inspectors, coordinating with nonprofits and exploring grant opportunities, all while navigating federal, state and local guidelines.

They considered, discussed and in some cases inspected hotels, an old hospital and even an old pawn shop near "Malfunction Junction" owned by Rodney Street businessman Charlie Carson.

With help from Helena Fire Marshal Lou Antonik and Chief Building Official Kimberly Mack, the group has ultimately landed on a plan to convert Our Place, a peer-support counseling drop-in center on Last Chance Gulch, into an emergency overnight shelter to complement the services of God's Love, the city's only dedicated shelter that offers overnight stay on its floors. That would be in addition to Our Place's current use as something of a daytime warming shelter.

Buscher said God's Love administrators are willing to accept anyone this week with storm totals eclipsing a foot in some parts of the city and that anyone unable to stay in the shelter will be handed off to a Good Samaritan case worker or local law enforcement, "and not sent out into the cold."

Buscher said the city inspectors believe with some minor repairs, Our Place can shelter about 20 to 25 people this winter.

He said after some major repairs and needed but-yet-to-be-secured grant funding through the Montana Department of Commerce, Our Place could be converted to a long-term shelter.

"This year has nothing to do with the grant," said Good Samaritan Executive Director Theresa Ortega, who runs Our Place.

Ortega stressed Good Samaritan Ministries has a new board of directors that need to weigh in, a conditional use permit that would need to be obtained from the city commission, policies to draft and a public process that needs to play out before any such conversion could take place.

"We wish we'd landed on this four weeks ago, but this is the way it unfolded," Buscher said.

City Commissioner Melinda Reed thanked the group for its efforts, but asked about the more than 20 people required to disband a camp in Oro Fino Gulch this week.

"Do we have any idea what will happen tonight?" she asked.

Buscher said God's Love has agreed to allow some of those people who had previously been trespassed from the shelter for various offenses back as long as they obey the rules.

Ortega said one couple who had been staying in the Oro Fino Gulch camp was as of Wednesday afternoon sheltering in a tunnel, but that a case manager was actively working with them.

"I would like to thank Jeff, Theresa and the rest of the working group. It's a heavy job, and you've done wonderful," City Manager Tim Burton said, adding that any required processes through the city, presumably permitting, would be streamlined where the law allowed. "Where we are today is most impressive."

The working group representatives both stated those who participated in the meetings helped generate a number of potential medium- to long-term solutions they hope to continue to explore in future meetings tentatively set for January.

"We'll keep our eyes open for other possible facilities," Buscher said. "I would like to have a backup plan."

One idea generated from the working group meetings, which was ultimately scrapped, was to use Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Services-owned military-style tents. One proposal called to have the tents set up on Kendrick Legion Field, the Legion baseball diamond.

The county reportedly told the working group it required an approved usage agreement that Buscher said would be too burdensome on a local nonprofit, calling it "a significant drain" on already limited resources.

"Most nonprofits don't have the manpower to do this on the side," he said. "No nonprofit is stepping up to say 'We would like to take this on.'"

Reed previously told the Independent Record she did not believe a solution meriting the $100,000 allocation will come before winter truly settles in.

As part of the commission action that allocated the money, it was stipulated the money be returned to the general fund should no option be presented.

Reed said she may support a proposal to use some of the funding to hire a third-party consultant to study the local problem and offer actionable solutions.

(c)2023 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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