People trying to alleviate homelessness and find a solution to problems with transients in downtown Billings are making plans to hear about models that seem to be working in other cities.
They are also accelerating their plans. At a downtown forum in late May, City Administrator Tina Volek proposed holding a summit on homelessness in January or February.
On Thursday, in a meeting with the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness, Volek said the summit should be held no later than October, in case any of the solutions involve bills that would have to pass the Montana Legislature, which convenes in January for its biennial session.
The sense of urgency has also increased since that downtown forum, following the murder of widely known photographer Michael Sample, who was killed in his office just off Montana Avenue on June 19.
“The downtown business community is up in arms over what has happened in the last few weeks,” Volek said.
Volek has been meeting regularly with Lisa Harmon, director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, and a few other parties with a stake in the downtown. But the Thursday meeting with the mayor’s committee was the first time some of the proposed solutions were aired in front of a larger group.
The discussion is just beginning, and numerous questions and concerns were lobbed at Harmon and Volek, but the committee — with more than a dozen members present — voted unanimously to support plans to hold the October summit.
Volek said she still has to win the support of the City Council, and possibly some funding to put the summit on, but she was reasonably certain the council would back the concept.
Tentative plans are to bring in representatives of communities that have made progress on helping the homeless and controlling problems with transients.
The two cities most often cited are San Antonio, Texas, and Reno, Nev., both of which have consolidated most of their human services on a central campus, which increases efficiency and reduces the perpetual migration of people going from agency to agency in search of help.
Some members of the mayor’s committee said they should look at other, closer towns — Missoula and Kalispell were mentioned — as well as ideas beyond the single-campus approach.
“I just think we need to think broadly about this,” said Mona Sumner, the longtime head of the Rimrock Foundation and now with the Addictions Consulting Group.
Everyone agreed that the summit should involve one day of listening to presentations and then a day of brainstorming to try to decide what would work best in Billings.
One reason for a renewed interest in the campus idea is that there may be a new source of funding available for what could be an expensive startup: Volek said Reno’s Community Assistance Center had a price tag of $12.1 million.
In April, the foundation funded by the sale of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana announced it will have more than $150 million to fund health-care programs in Montana.
Perry Roberts, director of the Montana Rescue Mission, warned that a major solution like a one-campus center might not do much to deal with the transient problem.
“I think you have to be careful not to assume that the problem is access to services,” he said. Many transients don’t seek any services because they want to be on the streets, he said, while others have engaged in activities that disqualify them from seeking help from places like the mission.
Kristin Lundgren, representing the United Way, said the average age of a homeless person nationwide is 9, so why all the focus on transients?
Brenda Beckett, manager of the city’s Community Development Division, said San Antonio’s Haven for Hope addresses homelessness and transience by keeping the two populations separate.
Transients are given a safe, fenced area to camp in for the night, outside but with a roof, while homeless people, using different entrances, seek indoor shelter and services in other areas of the campus.
Volek said the transient problem has come to the forefront because of increased reports of drunken behavior and widespread panhandling. And even though the man accused of killing Sample was not a transient, she said, “we have a community that since Michael Sample’s death is scared.”
“We have got to do something,” she said.
That prompted a caveat from John Felton, president of Riverstone Health, the public health agency headquartered at 123 S. 27th St, where the meeting was held Thursday.
He said there has been some talk of locating a single-campus homeless center near Riverstone, which sees hundreds of people a day, including many women and children, in its medical, dental and other programs.
Their safety should receive at least as much consideration as the safety of downtown business owners and their customers, he said.
He also urged the group to gather more data, saying that what they’d heard so far consisted mainly of stories and anecdotes about the transient problem.
Stories generate energy and emotion, he said, but “these stories are not data. They’re not facts.”
Harmon assured Felton that no decisions have been made about where to locate a homeless center. She also reminded those present of their common purpose.
“I know that we don’t always say the same thing, but we want the same thing,” she said.