The Bozeman Warming Center opens again in one week as colder temperatures start causing real situations for those without homes across the Gallatin Valley.
And yet that’s the issue, as the number of homeless people grows every day, locally and nationally.
You can see them near WinCo, near Bozeman Pond, behind Kenyon Noble, even in Walmart’s parking lot: campers, and not just camping trailers, all those without homes—and it is getting colder.
As you drive along Max Avenue near WinCo, the sound of generators can be heard more and more.
“They are just average people, you know?” says Brian Guyer, housing director at the Bozeman HRDC. “Sometimes there are mental health issues and addiction issues but the reality is you are one big, unexpected cost away from needing shelter services.”
For Gary Winthorp, who moved to Bozeman from Brazil when he was 10 years old, Bozeman Pond is a dog-walk favorite.
“Bozeman has brought me to something that I hadn’t seen before, which is a community that is fully knit together,” Winthrop says. “Everybody relies on each other and everybody is looking to help each other and I actually learned that over here with these guys at the camp.”
Gary points to a splash of blue canvas standing out against the yellow autumn leaves, one unit in a line of other tents along the pond’s edge.
“There was a guy charging his phone and we started talking,” Winthorp says. “He told me he works at FedEx and he kind of gave me a rundown of his story. I just sat there. I asked him what are you up to and he told me he lived in one of these tents. He’s a Marine. He said he had his training and he’s dealt with situations like this before and he’s staying strong through it but his biggest concern is getting somewhere warm and a house, really, a bedroom.”
Winthorp says he recalls how the veteran sleeps during the day, then travels to work at night.
“He’s been hard working, biking every morning seven miles all the way down Huffine to FedEx and that’s at night,” Winthrop says. “He’s a night worker. He’s doing that in the dark and he’s biking back on Huffine every night. The first snowfall is what really gave me a wake-up call.”
“We are certainly seeing a spike in people who are camping in public spaces unlike anything we’ve ever really seen before,” Guyer says.
It’s a situation all too familiar for Guyer and HRDC, and the Bozeman Police, who they partner with.
“Over the last two to six months, we’ve seen probably five years of escalation in our housing market and it has all just happened so rapidly that I think it has caught everybody by surprise,” Guyer says. “The rapid escalation in housing costs is clearly one of the main things of what we are seeing here. We are seeing some wage discrepancies with people who are moving here and the wages that they earn versus the wages that our local workforce earns.”
Guyer says there are three or four outreach partners like himself, routinely checking in on communities like this one, bringing them blankets, sleeping bags, and other useful resources.
“To bring them in from out in the cold is going to be really important,” Guyer says. “Last year, we had seven people pass away due to exposure or complications from exposure and as a community, you know, that just seems like a failure to me.”
It’s that cold that gave Gary over at Bozeman Pond an idea.
“If you were to just take a couple of steps out of that path and give him that opportunity, they can easily get into a place and that’s what I found out,” Winthorp says. “A little goes a long way.”
Gary took a look at his own situation. He's moving again soon and his home would soon be open. So Gary took it into his own hands, hoping for more hope to spread.
“He will be moving in and moving out of the park and that’s what I hope the whole community can do for anyone,” Winthorp says. “We’re helping people who want to do good. We are helping people with goals. He told me his main goal is to sail. He wants to make all his money back and pay off all of his debt and sail, just sail for the rest of his life.”
“You can’t arrest your way out of this problem,” Guyer says. “We need to find resources for these people to get them back on their feet.”
“There are a lot of people who go home to a three-bedroom and a fully-heated house. They still don’t find that drive or that willingness to help the community where here, this man is doing that from a tent in the park on their blanket on a sleeping bag that is meant for the summer. That—that’s hope.”