BILLINGS — With temperatures dropping to more than 20 degrees belowzero this week in Billings, any prolonged time spent outdoors can be dangerous. But when you're homeless, there are few options for shelter.
Justin Sanderson is a Billings native. He was priced out of a previous rental and recently lost his job. He was able to get approved for housing assistance from the Salvation Army, which has run out, and he's awaiting approval for more aid from the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance (MERA).
“We were in this house, and they showed up without notice and it was the middle of COVID season. They picked like eight or nine tenants or something like that, and went in and kicked everybody out and bumped all of the rent up by $400,” Sanderson explained Wednesday. "I’ve actually had a couple of people help me out with hotels for a few nights now."
While he waits for more housing aid, Sanderson and his family have enough donations to cover his hotel room through Wednesday night but have no other options for later this week.
While he appreciates the generosity, Sanderson said he has no permanent solution while waiting to be taken off the growing waiting lists for help.
“I called the Section Eight (federal housing aid) number, that’s one of the waiting lists that I just got a thing in the mail for, they said I’m 487th,” Sanderson explained. “I’m on the Family Promise (a Billings nonprofit) waiting list. They said it could be a couple days or a couple weeks, even up to a couple months, so there’s no certain time on anything."
Sanderson attributes the kindness he has been shown to the people of Billings and the holiday season.
“I’m very very grateful. They actually helped out a lot. People that I don’t even know have reached out and it’s been super cool. Definitely the holiday spirit kind of thing, it kind of keeps it flowing,” Sanderson said. “I grew up here, and I’ve always thought Billings was a pretty humble town."
The homeless population in Billings is growing, and while resources are available, they're limited.
According to a press release from RiverStone Health, nearly 1,400 people in Billings are enrolled in Healthcare for the Homeless. This program provides needed medical, behavioral, dental care and referrals for other community services through RiverStone and St. Vincent de Paul.
RiverStone also states that 17 homeless persons died in Billings in 2022, largely in part to cold weather exposure.
Nationwide, Dec. 21 is known as National Homeless Persons Memorial Day. In honor of the day, Healthcare for the Homeless held a vigil on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn to honor lives lost in Billings.
Billings Mayor Bill Cole made a proclamation at the vigil, marking Dec. 21 as Homeless Persons' Memorial Day in Billings.
"The Billings community has a responsibility to address the factors that contribute to homelessness, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of access to mental healthcare, and lack of access to addiction treatment," Cole said in his proclamation.
Event organizers are hopeful that bringing awareness to the issue will get the ball rolling to make a change.
Until then, people like Jacob Sanderson will remain hopeful.
"I try not to think about it but we get through it," Sanderson said. "We make it happen, we’ve been making it work so far."
To help Sanderson and his children, he asks donors to reach out to him via Facebook, or go directly to the Days Inn Hotel at 843 Parkway Lane in Billings to purchase a night for himself and his children.
“It’s just a struggle season this time of year," Sanderson said. "Well, every year. But this time of year specifically."