It’s a call that’s been sounded for months: Homelessness is a community-wide problem in Butte that needs a community-wide solution.
Organizations and charities in the Southwest Montana Continuum of Care Coalition have acknowledged the need for a “short-term” shelter, but much more than that this year, they have touted new approaches to ending homelessness altogether.
The Butte Rescue Mission has a Christian-based philosophy on how to best get the homeless on their feet and on their own again.
Its backers have been sounding their own call since their homeless shelter was shut down in April because of fire safety concerns: Butte needs a shelter, and if folks don’t believe us now, they will come winter.
Frankly, those who have backed one approach or the other have not joined hands.
Well, winter has arrived, Butte does not have a homeless shelter, and a new cry is being sounded: Establish one now or people are going to die.
It’s not hyperbole. Even when the mission's shelter was operating, homeless people have frozen to death.
Butte-Silver Bow sheriff Ed Lester says some who died were intoxicated and some might have thought they were warm enough or safe enough, but people have died of hypothermia in Butte.
Now, given the weather, Butte has a crisis on its hands.
“We need a temporary emergency shelter, and the sooner the better,” he said.
SHELTER ON THE WAY
It might come as soon as this week.
“We are at a crossroads here, folks,” Margie Seccomb, executive director of the nonprofit social services agency Action Inc., told more than 20 other members of the Continuum of Care group on Friday.
At the coalition’s urging, Action Inc. plans to open the vacant Homeward Bound building it owns on Quartz and Main streets Uptown as a homeless shelter this week. It would only be operational through May, they say.
It’s either do that, Seccomb said, or there will be “people dying on the street.”
Many who live, work, and run businesses Uptown have deep concerns about a homeless shelter in the area — the same worries they expressed earlier this year when the mission wanted to buy the building. A deal didn’t materialize.
And there are still tensions between some coalition members and the mission, whose subsequent attempts to find other locations also have fallen through.
When Seccomb offered an “olive branch” on Friday to Paul Buckley, president of the mission board, there wasn’t immediate peace.
He noted that the Homeward Bound building was the first location the mission sought.
“If we had all gotten together then, we wouldn’t be sitting here today on a snowy day wondering what we are going to do about the homeless,” he said.
Several coalition members bristled, and Bernie McCarthy, a deacon with the Butte Catholic Community North, shot back.
“However we got here, we are here,” he told Buckley. “If we go back to April, we are not going to get anywhere.”
As it stands, Action Inc. and the coalition plan to open the three-story Homeward Bound building as a shelter on Wednesday. They still need an occupancy permit from the county, and Fire Chief Jeff Miller says they need an annual inspection of the fire suppression system, but firefighters have been through the building and say it is safe.
Action Inc. used to house homeless people and run transitional programs in the building, so it's already insured and zoned for use as a shelter
There was cleaning to do this weekend, the building must be stocked with bedding and linens and other necessities, and people need to be hired so it can be staffed 24 hours per day.
The organizers have some money but not enough to get them through all winter, so they are seeking aid from the state and donations, too. But the plan is being pursued vigorously, and there was no talk Friday of roadblocks.
The need and cold weather have not erased the worries about a homeless shelter among those who live and work Uptown.
Butte-Silver Bow commissioner Bill Andersen, whose district includes part of Uptown, has heard from some already and knows he’ll hear more.
“There will be an awful lot of business owners in the Uptown corridor who will be fuming, and I do think it will reduce the amount of people who come up to shop,” he said. “I think it’s already tough right now.”
Ellen Crain, director of the Butte Archives located directly across from the Homeward Bound building, said earlier this year — when there was talk of the building becoming a shelter — that she wants to see people cared for. She still does.
But the four-block area already hosts the jail, pre-release center, and other places that provide housing and services for those “living on the edge of society,” many of them with serious drug and alcohol problems, she said.
Many people who visit the Archives are from outside of Butte and many are elderly, Crain said.
“Having people in various states of a mess and on the edge turns people away and makes people worried for their safety,” she said.
Jim O’Brien, who is 70 and volunteers at the Archives, said historic Uptown is Butte’s biggest asset and it is already overloaded with social services.
“My long-term concern is the way the quality of Uptown is changing, and nobody is really stopping and thinking about that,” he said.
Nonetheless, Crain said she told Seccomb she would support the shelter efforts from now through May. But she wants better, long-term answers to be sought.
“I think between the churches and social services and the coalition and the agencies that a creative solution can be found,” she said.
By no means are the Continuum of Care coalition and rescue mission abandoning their philosophies on helping the homeless.
The coalition’s efforts are aimed at immediately identifying the homeless, finding them housing arrangements, and matching them with services they need quickly to overcome their challenges and barriers.
Long-term stays in shelters work against that, its members say, and the newer methods have reduced the number of homeless in cities that have employed the collaborative and coordinated approach.
Members say their efforts since the mission shut down in April have resulted in 78 permanent households for people, including families and children, so they will continue — even with the temporary shelter operating.
The mission believes its Christian-based approach gives people a foundation to change their lives but says no matter what, a permanent shelter is needed because there will always be people who find themselves homeless.
The mission says it now has a tentative buy-sell agreement for property at Arizona and East Platinum streets where portable housing units it has could be placed and serve as a shelter. It is seeking a zoning variance to make that happen, but even if it gets one, winter might delay its opening until the spring.
But for now, there is at least some talk of supporting one another.
Rocky Lyons, executive director of the mission, supports the temporary shelter in the Homeward Bound building. It would meet an immediate need and take some pressure off of the mission until it can get its shelter up and running, she said.
“We run our programs differently, but there are enough people in this city and the seven counties we serve who need help that we don’t need to walk all over each other,” she said.
Seccomb said the mission could retain its faith-based emphasis while also employing the newer “evidence-based” methods to help people find permanent housing fast and turn their lives around.
Everyone has had to make adjustments and adapt, she said. The coalition would simply like to see the mission consider adjustments to help the whole system be more effective.
“We can try to get consensus on the system,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we both worked together?”
There are certainly those, including Commissioner Andersen, cheering them on.
The temporary shelter is needed, he said, given the weather and circumstances. But it will take cooperation to find longer-term solutions.
“I think there has been a lot of consternation between the two groups,” Andersen said. “They butted heads, and they have different philosophies about how it should work. But they both have the same goal and mission, and I think they really need to work together.”
There are others seeking answers, too.
Many interested in finding both short- and long-term solutions have pointed in recent weeks to a bequest the Salvation Army made in Butte’s interest that has been a matter of contention for years.
When Burton Kinyon, a mechanic who worked for Butte-Silver Bow, died in 2010, he left an astonishing $1.86 million to three charities, including $622,000 to the Salvation Army — with the proviso that it was “for use in the Butte, Montana area.”
While the Salvation Army has been using interest from the bequest to fund its Butte operations, the principal has not been used. And some see that as a potentially significant piece in any long-term solution.
The Salvation Army has indicated that it would like to reconstitute an advisory board in Butte. The previous board was disbanded after members said the agency paid no attention to its suggestions for the use of the bequest.
Meanwhile, Lester says his department worked well with the mission when its shelter was operating and officers are prepared to help the temporary shelter in any way they can.
Area residents and businesses have some well-founded concerns, he said, but shelter is needed.
“I know it’s controversial, and I understand that, but we are in an emergency situation where people are in real danger,” he said. “This is the only viable option right now. We have to take care of our fellow human beings.”