After debate on the floor, grant for the unhoused passes first hurdle in the House

By: - March 10, 2023 6:05 pm

Rep. George Nikolakakos, R- Great Falls, speaks on the House floor in support of House Bill 380 on Friday, March 10, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Heavy snowfall could be seen outside the windows of the House floor as Montana representatives debated providing funding for shelters for the unhoused around the state.

Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, said Friday as he looked outside it was “inconvenient” to be homeless in Montana. Duram spoke in opposition to House Bill 380, which would allocate $2 million in matching funds to nonprofits working with the unhoused population in the state.

Duram quoted the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” saying, “If you build it, they will come.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Frazer, R- Deer Lodge, was amended on the floor to add financial reporting requirements for additional accountability. Frazer also amended the bill in committee to add a sunset date for the funds in 2025.

The bill passed as amended 57-43 but not before some legislators questioned it.

Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, said he would like to see the million dollars spent on bus tickets, “because they’re not the ones we want to help.”

“In the Flathead Valley, you’re going to be hard pressed to find families that are homeless because we take care of our own. There’s more churches in the Flathead than any place,” Smith said.

The remark came after Flathead County Commissioners penned an open letter saying they were “unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle,” in response to rising numbers of unhoused people in Kalispell. The letter was cited by Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, in opposition to the bill in the House Human Services Committee.

Frazer’s bill received bipartisan support on the floor, with Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, saying it’s a good bill addressing a great need right now.

“These are shelters like the one in Great Falls, the Rescue Mission, that supports this bill, and all around the state, who are providing services to families, to single moms, and getting them some help. They’re overwhelmed right now,” Nikolakakos said. “I’ll be smashing this green light.”

He said he understood the frustration with spending, citing what he saw as dysfunction at the federal level, but said Montana is doing things right. He spent a day voting on “tax cuts for guys like me,” saying that was fine with making a smaller government.

Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, said the state already allocates plenty of funds toward the unhoused in the state.

When the bill was heard in committee, Jessie Counts with the Department of Public Health and Human Services told lawmakers the department currently has four programs, including rental assistance, that help with housing stability or homelessness prevention.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, said it sounded like the programs were for housed people and asked if there were programs for the homeless, to which Counts said these programs can also help those who are homeless.

“There’s an income limit. That’s the primary criteria for most of them, as well as either being homeless or being at risk of being homeless,” she said.

Frazer said on the floor that the legislature has dedicated funds to other aspects of the housing crisis. He said this was a modest amount to help get people back on their feet.

The bill would provide funds for nonprofit organizations to provide:

  • In-house treatment and case management services to address mental health and substance use disorders;
  • Family care and other services that will allow families to remain together; and
  • Programs serving elderly populations who are currently unhoused or at risk of becoming homeless

Frazer said mental health services help keep people out of the prison in Deer Lodge, where he works.

“So they don’t go out there and become an even bigger burden on our taxpayers,” he said.

The bill will go on to third reading in the House.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.