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A stolen camper and family cats are found, but Billings housing struggles stay after pandemic aid ends

Nading camper
Posted at 7:54 PM, May 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-09 11:31:26-04

BILLINGS — A trailer stolen with a family's cats inside thankfully has a happy ending, as the camper and one cat were found less than 24 hours after disappearing.

"We went to pick up my son to get him some water and run some other errands and we came back to no camper," camper owner Shannon Nading said.

With a Facebook post shared far and wide, including pictures of the two cats, Chance and Tigger, Nading got a call that the camper and one cat were found off Third Street West.

"It's like coming home and your house is gone and your kids are gone in it," Nading said.

Nading's son has been living in the camper for a few months, and Nading in her car, after they lost their apartment about six months ago. Nading had found temporary housing at a local motel through the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance Program (MERA), a pandemic-era program which is seeing most people pushed out as the money dwindles.

"It's hard out here. There are so many people [searching], it's ridiculous," Nading said.

MERA used more than $100 million of federal funds distributed by the Montana Department of Commerce to help more than 13,000 Montana households stay in their rentals during economic uncertainty.

Billings Rep. Mike Yakawich says what's needed now is more information about how that money was actually spent.

"Why there were people who were on for half of the month and then not there anymore, where was this money going to, was it being used properly," Yakawich says, listing concerns he heard from community housing coordinators in Billings.

A major concern is the money was paid directly to hotels to house MERA recipients, but some hotels forced recipients to leave before their vouchers expired, and the funds weren't returned to the state.

"So that led to the bill, House Bill 523," Yakawich said. That bill requires the Montana Department of Commerce to provide quarterly reports of businesses, property management companies, and landlords that received MERA funds, how much they received, if they were flagged for fraudulent use, and if money found to be used incorrectly was ever returned.

Nading said it's a situation she encountered at the hotel where she was staying.

"They kicked everyone out early," Nading said. "We still had three weeks to go that the state paid for."

Yakawich's bill requiring public reporting on MERA funds passed and is now awaiting a signature from Gov. Greg Gianforte. If it's signed into law, the first round of reporting will come out in July.

"I'm hopeful that not only will we be able to understand where the money went to, and where allocation and accountability takes place," Yakawich said. "And that maybe there is an opportunity to find more funding for this project in the future."

For now, Nading and her son are still searching for their second cat, Tigger, and hoping better times are ahead.

"I would just like to say thank you to everyone on social media, to the Billings Police Department, and especially the person who told me the camper is here, I can't thank him enough," Nading said.