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Dangerous cold drives ER visits in Billings, aid organizations step in to help

Montana Rescue Mission
Posted at 6:48 PM, Jan 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-16 11:37:19-05

BILLINGS — Frigid cold can be tough for everyone to deal with, but it can be life-threatening for people who do not have safe shelter or proper gear for being outside.

Checking with Billings hospitals Monday, St. Vincent Healthcare emergency department treated about 20 patients during the weekend for cold-weather injuries ranging from frostbite to falls to car crashes. Billings Clinic representatives said the ER saw eight confirmed cases of frostbite, mostly in fingers and toes, and 12 slips and falls.

Homeless shelters across Montana are working around the clock to keep people safe as the cold snap stretches on.

At the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings, Code Blue procedures are still in place, meaning the shelter and its services are open 24/7 instead of its normal operating hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The shelter is still under construction as part of a multi-year, $23 million renovation and expansion, but that doesn't stop them from offering food, shelter, and additional services.

"We've been doing this for 75 years. We're prepared," said Montana Rescue Mission Executive Director Matt Lundgren. "We have extra blankets, extra pillows, extra mattresses, whatever, just to help people.”

Lundgren says MRM had about 300 people in the shelter this weekend, a 20-30% increase from normal weekend numbers.

“My outreach team has literally gone out to people car camping, knocked on the window and said, would you like to come in? They've gone to tents that they've seen in town and asked would you like to come in? Everyone knows we're here," Lundgren said. "We're letting people know, and if people want to come in, come on in. We're ready for you.”

River has been a client at MRM for a while now and knows how important it is to have a warm place to go.

“Being here, it saved my life—100%," River said. "I lost my husband of 20 years and so I fell. And if it hadn't been for this place, I wouldn't have been able to get back on my feet.”

The cold can be deadly for people living on the streets, but it can also exacerbate stressors for low-income households.

"If you turn your thermostat up just a few degrees, it makes a huge difference on your bills," said Felicia Burg, development director at Family Service. "Every little thing that costs $10, $15 more puts a huge strain on people struggling with poverty, family members, senior citizens on fixed incomes."

Burg says they have seen an increase for clothing donations and energy bill assistance—two of the services the nonprofit offers.

“We see things before and after, so we know when it starts warming up, we're going to get a huge influx of people coming in to get food and then next month we're going to see the effects of the higher utility bills with people who just can't manage that spike in cost," Burg said.

As people around Montana try their best to battle the cold, Burg says it's an important time for neighbors to help neighbors.

“If you're not struggling with this cold weather and you've been blessed to have everything that you need, just keep in mind of your neighbors and others that don't," Burg said. "Reach out to us, reach out to the people that you see that may need something, and we'll all get through this together.”