Gary Locke tells of a 55-year-old homeless woman on a waiting list for a heart and lung transplant.
The temperatures were plunging in the Bitterroot Valley. For 12 nights, she was able to stay with her daughter but had to leave because the apartment’s rules didn’t allow for guests to remain longer than that.
And so the woman moved into her storage unit.
“It was so cold there that she just about froze,” Locke said. “I was able to put her for a night in a local motel, but then she was out and about without a place to stay. She went to West House, but she didn’t have mental issues and so they couldn’t take her in.
“It’s not something we see all that often, but when it happens, it’s serious,” Locke told the Ravalli County Commission Monday.
Locke, of the nonprofit organization Family Shelter of the Bitterroot, asked the commission to consider allowing that organization to use the arts building at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds as an emergency warming shelter this winter when temperatures drop below 15 degrees.
The commission opted to wait until after they hear from the Ravalli County Fair Board whether the proposal is logistically sound. The full board will meet next week to discuss the matter.
The Family Shelter of the Bitterroot worked with churches in Victor and Corvallis the last two winters to provide emergency warming shelters for the homeless on cold winter nights, but Locke said the facilities didn’t get much use.
“We want to try to set up one in Hamilton that’s centrally located and easy for people to find,” Locke said. “Our hope is that maybe we can serve more people that way.”
If the fairgrounds arts building doesn’t work, Locke hopes that someone else might step forward with an alternative.
“All we need is a bathroom and a heated space,” he said. “We won’t use it during the daytime. It would be nice to have two rooms, one for men and the other for women. … Over the last two years, we’ve opened them up at 10 p.m. and been out by 7 a.m.”
At the most, Locke said the facility probably wouldn’t house more than 10 people a night.
“This is a crisis type of shelter,” he said. “People aren’t going to drive here from Missoula or elsewhere to have to wait until 10 to get inside to sleep on a cot and then be out in the cold again by 7.”
The emergency warming shelter would not allow alcohol, drugs or weapons.
“This is a group of people who will just be happy to be out of the cold,” Locke told the commission. “We don’t have any big bouncers, but we do have a lot of caring folks. That goes a long way.”
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Fair Board Chair Margaret Yuhas voiced concerns about the use of the arts building since it was already booked for events in January, February and March.
“We pretty much have the building rented and committed. … I’m wondering if there isn’t another building that would have better availability,” Yuhas said. “I’m just concerned that your back-up plan may be set up for failure due to lack of availability of that building.”
Stacey Umhey, executive director of Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE), said the issue of homelessness is real in the Bitterroot Valley.
“It’s not an issue of if you build it, they will come,” Umhey said. “They are already here. I think if you build it, they will be warm. If you build it, they will have a safe place to stay.”
SAFE’s emergency shelter and transitional housing offerings are almost always full. Umhey said SAFE employees visited surrounding campgrounds this summer and learned that many people at those facilities are living there because they can’t afford housing in the Bitterroot.
“There are families and kids living there full time,” Umhey said. “They are going to school from there. They take their baths in the campground's bathroom. People have been living in those campgrounds for years. They come to SAFE as an exit strategy because they can’t get into the campgrounds because they are full.”
Western Montana Mental Health’s West House Director Kari Auclair said that facility, which operates out of county-owned building, also sees the homeless issue up close and personal.
Over the last year, the facility discharged 86 homeless people after helping them work through a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, Auclair said homelessness is not considered a criterion that would allow West House to admit someone or allow them to stay.
“It’s not a great feeling when you come to that point that they have to be discharged,” Auclair said. “They had a significant mental health disorder which was probably perpetrated by being homeless. … Sometimes we can find relatives who can take them in or someone with a couch. Sometimes we drive them to Missoula for a stay at the Poverello.
“It’s hard to wrap services around the homeless because we can’t contact them or coordinate with them afterward to give them the help they might need,” Auclair said. “We run the risk of losing our license with the entities that support us if we start admitting folks to the crisis facility who don’t need crisis care.
"There is definitely a need in Ravalli County for a safe place to shelter when the temperatures drop," she said.
Ravalli County Commissioner Chris Hoffman served for years as the county sheriff. He said the current sheriff is concerned that without a place for people in transition to go when the temperatures plunge, there will be coroner’s calls this winter.
“I’ve seen people go out and commit crimes that are just enough to get them into jail during the cold winter months,” Hoffman said. “It’s more expensive to house people in the detention center than somewhere else. We can’t make them leave if they know they can get three hots and a cot.
“They end up taking expensive space in the jail,” Hoffman said. “I’m just wondering if there isn’t something we can do to help.”