Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, presents his House Bill 380 to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, March 20, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
A bill that would provide $2 million over the next biennium in state matching funds to nonprofits and local governments that serve Montana’s homeless population would have positive economic impacts for the communities that receive them beyond what can be measured in the fiscal note, proponents of the measure told the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.
No one testified in opposition during the hearing on the fiscal note for House Bill 380, sponsored by Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge. More than a dozen proponents, most of them providers of homeless and mental health services across the state, discussed the influx of people experiencing homelessness and mental health crises particularly over the past three years, and how their budgets and staffing had not been able to keep up with the growth.
They said because of the lack of resources to meet the increased capacity, emergency rooms and first responders are bearing the extra load and costing local governments and the state more money.
“When folks don’t have a warm place to stay, when they don’t have a shelter, when they don’t have access to someone to connect them with mental health services, [substance use disorder] treatment, etc., those costs are carried by our emergency rooms, by our EMS services, by our law enforcement, even by our jails … ,” said Sam Forstag, representing the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness.
“That is not something you see reflected in your fiscal note, but that is a cost that is carried somewhere, and it’s something that we pay for – whether it’s up front or on the back end.”
HB380 would allow local governments and nonprofits to apply for grants from a pool of $1 million in state matching funds in each of the next two years to put toward in-house treatment and case management services for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders; programs for older Montanans who are currently or at-risk of experiencing homelessness; and family care services so families experiencing homelessness are not separated from one another.
The grant recipients would have to report how the funds are being utilized to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which would in turn report the program’s results to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee next year.
Providers for people experiencing homelessness in Bozeman, Helena, Billings and the Flathead Valley told the committee that some of the substance use and mental health disorders go hand-in-hand with homelessness and that having more case managers and support staff, whose funding could come from the grant money, would be a major boost for people experiencing homelessness, the staff at the shelters and the community at large.
Many of the proponents said they had seen the number of people using their shelters and service grow by more than 100% over the past few years as housing gets more expensive and more people move to Montana, and as mental health providers also struggle to keep up.
Tonya Horn, the executive director of the Flathead Warming Shelter, said the grant could help support more case managers within shelters to meet people’s behavioral health needs.
“The truth is, your local homeless shelters have been filling in so many heavy and challenging, gaping holes in our current mental health crisis across the state. When there is nowhere for the mentally ill to go to stabilize, homeless shelters throughout the state have, by default, become mental health crisis stabilization spaces,” said Horn. “… This bill isn’t about funding homeless shelters. This bill is about getting behind private solutions that are doing the work in our communities to fill the severe gaps in services.”
After Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, asked about whether tribal governments would be considered local governments that could apply for the funding match, Frazer said he was open to any amendments to try to move the bill forward.
“I’m very open to figuring out how we can make this work to the best of my ability and help the most folks we can,” he said. “Any amendments that would make this better and help serve folks that would need our help the most – I like it.”
The committee did not take action on the bill Monday morning. If it votes to move the bill forward, the bill would face a third vote in the House before it moves on to the Senate.
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