Life on the streets can be hard for the unhoused in Billings---a cycle of despair for many that often includes substance abuse, mental health problems or both.
“The homeless population here is so vulnerable,” says Maddison Liberty, the homeless care outreach coordinator for the Rimrock Foundation.
“They need help just like everybody else, and it’s nice when we can go to where they are at and meet them there with their needs,” she says.
One way the Rimrock Foundation has been trying to reach those on the streets is through homeless outreach teams—also known as hot teams.
The teams have been in place for about two years now, mostly focusing on the downtown area. They were funded through a Cossap grant.
“My job is to try and connect them and send them referrals. I work with a lot of other organizations. I try to help them be as independent as they can in the community. I help with housing, employment, getting them into psych and mental health appointments,” Liberty says.
Members of the team head into areas where many of the unhoused commonly are. It’s a recruiting mission of sorts. They pass out water and strike up conversations. They also try to encourage them to get into substance abuse treatment if needed.
“So, we are just looking to help wherever we can whatever that might look like. The goal would be to help our homeless community—someone might need treatment, some help with substance abuse. It’s building up that relationship,” says Kyle Duneman, a peer support specialist.
Several members of the hot team know firsthand what many of those on the streets are dealing with because they’ve been there themselves.
“I went a lot of years struggling. I finally had an overdose and was in the hospital and finally came to the realization that if I don’t do something about this I’m going to die,” says Duneman.
Duneman believes that shared experience is a tool for a deeper connection with those he contacts on the street.
It’s something other members of the hot team can attest to.
“I was also homeless and on the streets, so it’s a subject that is close to my heart,” says Melanie Hopper, who is also a peer support specialist.
But addiction is a stubborn beast. Not everyone is willing to accept the help the hot teams offer.
“Yes, it gets frustrating because not only do we want to give them help, there’s time when we have given them help and they have walked away from us. Or we will go somewhere and get cussed out just because we are there trying to help,” says support specialist Eddie Foot, Jr.
While the hot teams have mainly focused on the downtown area of Billings during their first two years, they will also now be heading into the Heights and to the West End, which have both seen noticeable increases in the number of unhoused people. The hope is to add three additional people to the four-person team in the near future.
“We have had a few people who have been chronically homeless and really struggled with addiction and mental health—and we now have people who are getting jobs and in their own homes and they are just doing great. They have been sober for a long time now. Those are the stories that we love to see,” says Liberty.