Homeless shelters in Montana are overwhelmed with demand, seeking state funds to expand operations

A housing encampment at the First United Methodist Church in Great Falls. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Vanessa Bond at 20 years old was evicted from her home following an abusive relationship and struggles with addiction. She lived in her car before it was towed and lived for months on the street in Billings before she found shelter and help at the Montana Rescue Mission.

Now she’s advocating for shelters to have more resources for people going through what she did.

Bond, along with shelter providers from across the state, told legislators and the state health department director Thursday people are staying at facilities longer and are having to break down walls to accommodate the demand during subzero weather events. Shelter representatives say case management and “housing first” programs — which prioritize shelter — help tremendously but take investment to accomplish.

Homeless shelters in Montana are overwhelmed with the demand for services, which they say has increased by upwards of 30% in five years.

In a recent study, Montana saw the most increases in chronic homelessness across the country with a 551% spike since 2007. Pew Charitable Trust Research found homelessness increased in areas across the country where rents have drastically increased, and rents increase where housing supply is limited – like in Montana.

Legislators are working to divvy up a $300 million investment in behavioral health through the Behavioral Health System for Future Generations Commission, and shelters are hoping to acquire funds to expand and continue services in their communities.

Bond advocated more money go towards support staff in shelters – for therapists, case managers and housing navigators – to help the overloaded shelters across the state meet the demand.

“Right now we have two case managers, two peer-support specialists, one part-time therapist and one full-time therapist serving up to 300 guests on the coldest nights,” she said. “With more of those staff, we can provide so much more help.”

Executive Director of the Samaritan House in Kalispell Chris Krager spoke to the “unprecedented” increases in demand across the state, with shelter seekers staying longer than in previous years.

Krager said in 2022, the average length of stay at a shelter in Montana was 100 days, and in 2023, it jumped to 185 days.

He said 85% of former Samaritan House residents are no longer homeless, and he attributed that to case management involving people who work on an individual basis to help clients find housing, employment and services.

Bond said her case manager helped her stay accountable when she was living at the Rescue Mission and said case manager meetings were a “vital component” in supporting people to get out of homelessness. She said if case managers had a smaller load, they could have accomplished more in less time.

Sam Forstag with the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness said during the record-cold temperatures last winter, the Poverello Center in Missoula had to knock down a wall in one of its shelters to accommodate the need for services and “make sure that nobody was freezing to death.”

He said if the state was going to invest in behavioral health services, shelters that are already stretched should have funding to make sure there’s a place to provide services, ideally on site.

Heather Grenier with the Human Resource Development Council of Bozeman and Livingston also spoke to the spike in demand for services, saying the number of people served in the last decade has “grown exponentially.”

She said over the last five years, the Bozeman area emergency shelter has seen:

  • a 32% increase in people accessing shelter;

  • a 75% increase in chronic homelessness – meaning people who have been unhoused for over a year or multiple times;

  • a 50% increase in the number of people over 55 years old accessing shelter; and

  • a 57% increase in the number of people with a mental health disorder accessing shelter.

Grenier also spoke to the importance of funding services within shelters, saying it’s necessary to actually help people get off the streets, and with their current limited resources, it isn’t possible.

“Funding for supportive housing and tenancy support services is critical because we’re already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on shelter and other services every year in the community without the ability to affect change for those individuals,” she said.

She said a local study had found six people experiencing homelessness in one year cost $20,000 per person in local and regional resources for things like emergency response healthcare, law enforcement response and social services.

“We’re spending that much per person per year to produce zero outcomes. At the end of the year, those people are still without housing,” she said.

Her organization adopted a “housing-first philosophy,” and through grants was able to place 12 residents in tiny homes that were coupled with services.

She said in six months, residents visited the emergency room 3.8 times less – and she estimated a savings of $382,000 for Bozeman Health. She said the savings from reduced detention center visits were $9,000 per person per year.

She said in the two years they’ve operated the program, they have had no people return to homelessness – but it takes money to keep these programs afloat.

Alex Horowitz with the Pew Charitable Trusts gave a presentation to a subcommittee of the Housing Task Force on Thursday, which touched on housing data impacting homelessness across the country and in Montana.

Horowitz said as housing supply decreases and house prices rise – rents rise accordingly. And higher rents also correlate with higher rates of homelessness across the country. Rents have reached an all-time high nationally in the past year, he said, and the supply of homes is reaching an “all time low.”

Housing stock in Montana is creeping back up after the state’s low in 2022, but it’s about 70% of what was available in 2018, with houses costing about $170,000 more in 2024 than in 2020, according to Horowitz’s presentation.

Horowitz said Montana has seen a massive increase in residents in recent years and that also leads to spikes in homelessness.

“We’ve seen homelessness shoot up in states that saw an influx of residents, but did not have a corresponding increase in the supply of homes,” Horowitz said.

The commission met again Friday and will meet again on April 23 in Helena.

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