Montana churches would be free to offer temporary shelter to homeless families under SB195

By: - January 31, 2023 1:04 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

When it’s 38 degrees below zero in Montana, churches being used as shelters don’t want to kick families out the door and into the cold — and Senate Bill 195 says they wouldn’t have to.

Sponsor Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, said at a hearing he didn’t anticipate the legislation to exempt some buildings from automatic sprinklers would become a “Family Promise bill,” but supporters from churches have rallied around it.

Family Promise helps families who are homeless, and in part, offers them temporary shelter in churches, which typically aren’t heavily used during the week.

Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

Monday, the Senate passed the bill 32-16 on second reading. However, it also approved an amendment that stripped out much of Trebas’ original intention, although he said it remains a good bill.

In committee, fire and building code officials had testified against the legislation because they said it would affect more than just churches and could compromise safety.

The bill would have exempted certain buildings being renovated or modified from having to install automatic fire sprinklers — an expensive endeavor that can be cost-prohibitive and render an old structure obsolete, Trebas said.

He said the bill would not have applied to new construction. (Trebas disclosed a personal financial interest in the legislation.)

However, the amendment that passed Monday peeled out most changes not related to religious organizations, the ones opponents such as the Montana Fire Alliance had raised concerns about.

At the hearing last week, Lisa Donnot, with Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, said her interfaith organization has been helping families for 20 years, but she recently received a “cease and desist” letter.

Because of a local fire marshal’s interpretation of code, she said she had to close a program that’s been providing shelter to families all that time.

“We’ve had over 50 homeless families with children since the beginning of November that have contacted us, and we have no place to put them when there’s all of these amazing warm congregations,” Donnot said.

Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley has helped more than 5,000 families in two decades, and a poll showed 86% were stable after six years, Donnot said.

Families aren’t permanently sleeping in churches, and hosts who spend the night are on a “fire watch program,” Donnot said. Churches have fire alarms and sensors, and additionally, she said every two hours, hosts do a walk-through for safety.

Also in support of the bill, Stephanie Baucus said it would help veterans.

Baucus, who said she is a lobbyist but was testifying on SB 195 as a volunteer for Family Promise, said many veterans are homeless, and they are more likely to die of exposure while being homeless than in a combat zone.

“These are some really scary statistics, and the legislature has a really easy opportunity to help solve this problem,” Baucus said.

Generally, the most recent version of the bill says churches are allowed to provide temporary shelter under certain conditions.

They can’t charge people, they must have sprinklers or fire and smoke alarms, and they can’t accommodate people for more than 75 days in a year unless the governor has declared an emergency, among other provisions.

Speaking prior to the bill being amended, Ole Hedstrom said firefighters consider many of their standard operating procedures to be “written in blood” because they’re the result of a death or serious injury.

Hedstrom, with the Montana State Fireman’s Association, opposed the bill in committee because of the significant exemptions — no longer in the legislation to date.

“It’s our stance that the language in this bill has potential to create an unsafe if not deadly condition, not only for our firefighters, but also those who they are sworn to protect,” Hedstrom said.

On the Senate floor, though, Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, spoke against the amendment and for keeping the bill and its exemptions intact.

He said the downtown of his hometown of Roundup is filled with abandoned buildings, and of course safety is a priority.

At the same time, he said Montanans shouldn’t price themselves out of ownership, especially as out-of-state companies buy up property here.

“Everything we do on one side costs on the other,” said Zolnikov, a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill appears headed to the House, but on the Senate floor, Trebas joked about the lack of sprinklers in the Chamber and potential cost to install them.

“We’ll see what the fiscal note is on that,” he said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.