Centers serving unhoused Montanans preparing to exceed capacity during bitter cold

By: - December 20, 2022 6:25 pm

A homeless man sleeps outside The Billings Gazette in downtown Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

With the coldest temperatures in 30 to 40 years set to hit Montana this week, organizations that serve Montana’s population experiencing homelessness are preparing to be well over capacity, and some are looking to overflow sites to protect people from freezing to death. 

Low temperatures are expected to reach -30 to -40 degrees across the state Wednesday night into Thursday morning, and wind chills could dip below -50 during the next several days, according to forecasts. 

Exposure to those conditions can cause frostbite to exposed skin in as little as five minutes and quickly lead to hypothermia and death. 

In Kalispell on Tuesday morning, the homeless outreach team for the Flathead Warming Center was out working with people experiencing homelessness who they have previously worked with in order to try to get them into shelter ahead of the even colder air moving into western Montana, according to Tonya Horn, the executive director and cofounder of the center. 

The warming center is typically open from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. every night through the winter but is opening 24 hours a day on Wednesday and Thursday to try to get as many people as they can indoors and away from the life-threatening cold , Horn said. 

The center has 50 beds and has been full during the past few weeks, but Horn said the center will try to accommodate everyone who wants to be inside even if there is not a bed for them. She said the center is handing out coats and sleeping bags with below-zero ratings to help keep people warm, especially for those who don’t want to come inside. 

While the shelter typically has to turn people away, Horn said it would not be doing so this week. The center has accommodated 63 people before, but Horn estimated there were likely around 30 more people experiencing homelessness out in the area who typically do not seek help from the shelter. 

She said she believes some people’s mental health is a barrier to them seeking services. And though Flathead Warming Center works with other service providers in the region, Horn said she hopes people in the community take better notice of, and give more assistance to, the unhoused community — not just when record-breaking cold temperatures hit. 

“We’re going to do our best not to turn people away even if we don’t have a bed,” Horn said. “… We are going to do what we can to save people’s lives.” 

In Bozeman and Livingston, the Human Resources Development Council (HRDC) activated their Code Blue policy on Monday in order to be open 24 hours a day until temperatures warm back up on Saturday, said Jenna Huey, the emergency shelter services manager for HRDC District 9. The policy goes into effect when high temperatures, including wind chill, are 10 degrees or lower. 

She said outreach teams have been going throughout Bozeman connecting with unhoused people and others living in RVs and campers to either get them into shelter or get them extra resources. In Livingston, the organization moved three people staying there into hotel rooms for the rest of the week, Huey said. 

The Bozeman facility is capped at 110 people, and Huey said 95 people stayed there Monday night. She said the organization is “getting concerned” that it will have to look at overflow sites — partners of the organization, as well as faith-based organizations and churches — in order to provide shelter to everyone who needs it this week. Outreach crews will continue to be on the streets and will be able to transport people if needed, Huey said. 

The other concern for the organization is that it does not have the staffing needed to support those overflow sites, which would have to provide staff support of their own. 

“Expanding or extending hours during this Code Blue is putting added strain on an already-limited, reduced and tight budget for Bozeman and Livingston,” Huey said. 

She said the housing strain caused by skyrocketing home and rental prices in the area, combined with a lack of new housing, has put people of different walks of life out of homes and needing services. But some do not feel comfortable being amidst dozens of others in an open, low-barrier space. 

Huey said the HRDC is working with its partners in the community to try to house as many people this week as possible during the bitter cold. It is asking for volunteers and for donations of hygiene products, hand and foot warmers, wool socks, gloves, hats, and water bottles.  

“We have volunteer shifts posted on our website. If that doesn’t work for individuals, please still reach out,” Huey said. “We need as many hands as we can get.” 

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.