BILLINGS — Temperatures into the single digits mean danger for Billings' unhoused population. With snow now officially touching down, those community members are seeking out shelter—but are enough beds available?
Wednesday’s winter storm gave a glimpse into the harsh awakening of what’s ahead.
"There’s no shortage of people who need a place to stay tonight that is warm, safe, and dry,” said Kari Boiter, the director of the Yellowstone County Continuum of Care, on Wednesday. “I would just encourage people to look around on the sidewalks, on the streets, and every nook and cranny in between. We have lots of folks who are unhoused."
The Yellowstone County Continuum of Care has helped provide shelter to Billings’ unhoused residents for the past three years at the First Congregational Church downtown.
This year, the emergency shelter won’t be opening.
“Since we have two wonderful partners in this community that are willing to step up and meet the need for shelter right now, that allows the Continuum of Care to shift its focus to these other needs that we also have identified that are just as critical,” Boiter said. "A critical gap that needs to be filled is permanent support of housing.”
“We would love it if we weren’t needed, but we just want to make sure that nobody is outside on extremely cold nights," said Jim Mack, a board chair at Off the Streets, on Wednesday. “Obviously time is of the essence, it’s not getting any warmer out there. So we’re very committed to doing what we can in a very short time frame."
Mack said Off the Streets has big plans to help address homelessness in Billings. It plans to one day set up 20x40-foot tents on a vacant lot near the Yellowstone Art Museum to provide temporary housing, but the nonprofit is not yet ready for that step.
"We are running into some statutory snags with the city since there are some regulations against tent encampments. So we don’t know if we’ll get final sign-off from the city," Mack said. “Hopefully we can get around that, but if not, we’ll hope that we can work with the city on some other plan."
That means it’s all on Montana Rescue Mission, which has a maximum occupancy of 572 people, according to the city of Billings.
"People will literally stay in beds, and we have beds, but when the beds run out, we have mattresses that we can put on the floor with pillows and blankets," said Matt Lundgren, the executive director of Montana Rescue Mission, on Tuesday. "Those we have plenty of. So we just make do."
Luckily, Montana Rescue Mission is building a new campus. The main shelter should be ready to open this spring.
“We’re literally expanding all of our capacity," Lundgren said. "Not because we want to have more homeless in Billings, but because we want to take the homeless folks that we do have, serve them better and give them the best chance of success."
Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve this season’s issues.
"This last January through the Continuum of Care, there were a total of 598 homeless individuals in Billings on one night," Mack said. "These are unique individuals. Of those people, there were 116 that were literally unsheltered."