It’s been a long, arduous journey for the Butte Rescue Mission and its backers since they were forced to close their homeless shelter in early 2017 after 40 years of serving the down and out in southwest Montana.
Efforts to find new locations were rejected or fell through.
Their Christian-based approach to housing and helping people has been criticized by some in Butte.
Lately, some have taken subtle shots at board members and the Mission’s executive director, Rocky Lyons, for not having their new shelter opened before winter weather set in as they had hoped.
So what’s the Mission's message now?
It’s one of shared urgency in getting the new shelter opened.
It’s one of gratitude to donors, supporters of all kinds, and the community at large for sticking by their side.
And it’s one of looking forward, not backward, getting to another mile-marker soon and being committed for the long haul.
“You look at this Rescue Mission when it closed (its shelter) down almost two years ago — I equate the race the Mission has been (in) since then to a marathon of 26 miles and 185 yards,” said Johne Tuthill, a military veteran and member of the Mission's Board of Directors.
“We are now in the 26th mile of this marathon. We have one mile and 185 yards to run. We have had to have tactical patience to proceed, but we are almost there.”
The support from donors, churches, and other longtime backers has not wavered since the longstanding shelter at a house on East Second Street was closed in April 2017 because of fire safety concerns.
In fact, Lyons says, it has grown.
“Our donor base is growing every day with churches and individual donors, and there are foundations that are seeking us out,” she said.
Said Board President Paul Buckley: “This really is a community project.”
The Mission was looking for a new shelter location even before it was forced to close the one on Second Street.
Among other things, the house was too small to do much besides sleep people, and even then, it was often crowded with more than 40 overnight residents. There was hardly any space to offer services or programs to get people back on their feet.
Last year, neighbors and others balked at a proposed Uptown location and rejected using the long-vacant Madison School on the Flat. A site was lined up south of the airport where portable housing units could be placed, but that fell through.
In October 2017, the Mission made an offer on land and a vacant building at East Platinum and Arizona streets near Butte’s warehouse district. They got a zoning variance for the site the next month and closed on the property this past April.
They had hoped to have portable housing units they purchased in North Dakota set up at the site and have the shelter complex open by this October, before winter weather set in, but that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.
They had to get bonds and permits required by Butte-Silver Bow before they could start work on the site, and the work itself has been extensive. It has included a new water main, other utility connections, and major ground work.
Just last month, civil engineers determined the ground wasn’t stable enough for modular units because there was too much metal, glass, ash, and other debris in the soil. Now, more dirt work and a synthetic mat is needed, adding time and $10,300 more to the project cost.
In recent months, others in the community have demanded that the Mission’s complex include a “low-barrier, emergency shelter” where those who are drunk or high on drugs can stay overnight.
The Mission wouldn't allow them to stay overnight at the previous shelter unless cold weather threatened their safety. That's because such people made it difficult for others, including those trying to recover from alcoholism or other addictions, Mission officials said.
They say they now recognize the need for such a unit, and it will be part of the complex, but it created its own challenges.
“That wasn’t something we intended to do,” said Scott Blando, a financial adviser in Butte who serves on the Mission’s board. “We are happy to do it, but that has certainly added to what we had to do.”
If the weather cooperates somewhat, site construction could be completed around Christmas. But the modular units will need cleaning and maintenance after they are placed at the site following construction, and that could take a few weeks.
The hope now is to have the modular complex, which will be called the Center of Hope, open some time in January.
There are still plans this coming spring to convert the vacant, two-story building into uses not possible at the previous shelter.
It would include administrative offices, a large “day room” where Christian services would be offered, and space where residents could use computers to look for work and apply for jobs and get lessons in various job, life, and parenting skills.
“Nothing was ever compromised in this process,” said Doug Raybould, facilities manager at the Clarion Copper King Hotel who is also a Mission board member. “Everyone has held to what we were hoping to get out of this project. It will be a completely different mission than most places have in the country.”
The mission has been faulted by some for not opening the shelter sooner.
That and other criticisms have been frustrating, even heartbreaking, says board member Dana Brunet, because the critics “don’t see the behind-the-scenes things going on and the obstacles we have incurred.”
But she and others are not pointing fingers themselves.
“We just need to stop and remember that God is in charge and this is his mission and we are just servants doing what he has called on us to do,” Brunet said. “We will get there in his time, and I just thank everyone for being patient..."
That means donors, too, including the Town Pump Charitable Foundation. It gave the Mission a $200,000 grant to help purchase the land and building at the site and will give another $200,000 if that same amount is raised from other sources.
The Mission has raised $122,000 so far, so it needs another $78,000 to get the match.
Board members say they’re thankful for everyone who has helped. Among others, they include local government officials, architect Paul Blumenthal, Rick Hoffman Construction, Dave Svejkovsk Construction, Pioneer Technical, and Vess Hurley.
But there are many others, they say, and they should be pleased when the Center of Hope is up and running.
“It is really going to affect Butte’s reputation on how we care for the disenfranchised and the homeless — how we try to restore their sense of self and try to provide opportunities for them and their children,” Tuthill said.