Montana leads nation in homelessness increases in 2023 report to Congress

By: - February 6, 2024 4:18 pm

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

Chris Krager sometimes walks around the Samaritan House carrying a measuring tape because the shelter always needs more room to unfold an extra bed.

“It is tough,” said Krager, executive director of the Samaritan House. “Occupancy rates across the state are at an all-time high with homeless organizations.”

“We’re full, full, full.”

Last year, the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness found nearly every community in the state had experienced a “dramatic increase” in the need for shelter and other services in the past three years.

For example, Bozeman had seen a 63.5% increase from 2019 to 2022, according to data from the coalition. Shelters in Missoula and Billings were seeing double the need from 2021 to 2022.

Now, a recently released national report to Congress from December 2023 puts Montana at or among the heads of the pack when it comes to increases in homelessness:

  • Montana saw the largest increase, 551%, of individuals experiencing chronic patterns of homelessness from 2007 to 2023, according to the 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress.
  • Montana saw the second-largest increase in homeless youth, 76%, from 2022 to 2023, the report said. (North Dakota had the largest at 89%.)
  • Montana saw the second-largest percentage increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2007 to 2023, at 89%. (The first was Vermont at 218%.) 
  • From 2022 to 2023, Montana had the third-largest percentage increase, 45%, in the number of people experiencing homelessness. (New Mexico was at 57% and New Hampshire was at 55%.)
  • Most states decreased their numbers of homeless veterans since 2009. However, from 2009 to 2023, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness increased in four states, including Montana (one veteran). (Maine remained level from 2009 to 2023.)

Sam Forstag, with the Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, summarized the status of Montana in the national report.

“We’re at the bottom of the heap for just about every category,” Forstag said.

(Screenshot from 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report.)

Forstag said he sees two common drivers for spikes in homelessness.

First of all, affordable housing remains out of reach in many communities, with the median cost of a home far outpacing the ability of a person or family earning a median wage to buy or rent.

In Missoula, a family earning an income of $80,200 and trying to buy a median priced home — $520,000 — at a 6.625% interest rate is still short $50,000 to $80,000 a year, according to a housing affordability index posted by the Missoula Organization of Realtors.

The U.S. Census counts median household income in Missoula County at $66,840.

Rents are going up, too. A $100 increase in median rent corresponds to a 9% increase in the homelessness rate, according to the coalition, citing national statistics that align with trends in Montana.

(Screenshot from Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness report.)

The second driver of the rise in homelessness is untreated behavioral health disorders, such as mental health and substance use, Forstag said. He said recent closures, such as ones that resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the beds of the Western Montana Mental Health Center due to inadequate Medicaid reimbursements, contribute to the problem.

He also said it’s an “open secret” that people discharged from Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs are sent to shelters, which mostly are not equipped to address untreated behavioral health disorders.

The 2023 Montana Legislature set aside $300 million for behavioral health with support from Gov. Greg Gianforte, and a commission is working on how to allocate the funds. The legislature also increased reimbursement rates, but many providers have said getting those dollars in hand has been slow.

At the Samaritan House, a homeless shelter and transitional living facility in Kalispell, Krager said it’s getting even more difficult to build homes. The organization is in the midst of a $17 million expansion, “exactly what the Flathead Valley needs right now.”

The project will add affordable rentals, dedicated units for veterans — a first for Kalispell, he said — and it will expand shelter space. It’s set to open in two or three years, but it’s more expensive to build these days.

“That’s a challenge that you catch right on the chin. It hurts,” Krager said.

The Samaritan House is seeing increases in need across demographics, from children to seniors. At the same time, unemployment rates are low, and Krager said people who are employable have jobs.

As one example from Missoula, Forstag said 30% of people at the Poverello Center are employed, and that’s a high proportion of people who aren’t children or seniors, or people who have untreated health conditions or behavioral health disorders.

In the past, Krager said he might get a call from a rancher who needed help to bring in the hay, and he could put a work crew together. Now, a case manager who helps people with employment is helping workers get better jobs with higher salaries.

In many communities, stable, affordable housing remains out of reach despite the paycheck.

In the fall, a property manager in Missoula said many of the people moving into a newly opened affordable housing complex, the Villagio, were arriving straight from sleeping in their cars. The Villagio serves people earning up to 60% area median income.

Forstag said last year was the first in some time that Montana didn’t have any unhoused people die from exposure in the winter. The coalition’s report from 2022 also said 1,287 people were moved into permanent housing.

Krager said people still can help by volunteering at or donating to their local homeless shelter.

“There’s nothing wrong with keeping people from freezing to death,” Krager said.

Homelessness in Mt Fact Sheet Updated March

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.