On Sept. 17, Action Inc. CEO Margie Seccomb received word from Rocky Lyons, Butte Rescue Mission’s executive director, that the mission would not be able to open its new shelter on Oct. 8 as it had planned.
Instead, the Mission pushed back its opening date to mid-December.
That left Seccomb and the local nonprofit social services agency Action Inc. in an unfortunately familiar situation: standing on the brink of winter, having to decide whether to quickly open a place for people without shelter to go.
Last year, Action Inc. made the decision to do so.
But this year, Seccomb and the agency’s board agreed — after much discussion, concern, and consideration — that they couldn’t do it, not again, not after Action Inc. stepped in late last fall, opened the doors to a temporary emergency shelter in Uptown in November, kept it running through May, and filled a much-needed gap in the local system of providing services for the homeless, which was severely disrupted in April 2017 when the Rescue Mission closed its East Second Street location due to fire code and safety violations.
“Our staff is still recovering from that,” Seccomb says of operating the shelter last winter. “They’re just burned out. It took a toll on everybody here. … It’s just too hard on our team. … It would just kill us to try to pull it (a shelter) together that fast.”
Lyons, executive director of the Butte Rescue Mission, believes Action Inc.’s inability to come through again and fill the gap left by her group’s delayed opening derives from a fundamental philosophical difference between the two groups: the mission is rooted in religion while Action Inc. adheres firmly to federal guidelines and research-based evidence about how to move people out of poverty.
According to Lyons, this difference helps explain Action Inc.’s decision not to open another emergency shelter.
“Working with the homeless clientele, especially in a low-barrier setting, is extremely messy and difficult,” Lyons says. “And if you don’t have staff that it is truly their heart and it’s truly their calling and they have the compassion and the wherewithal, the burnout rate is too great. We’re faith-based, so I always go back to that. If you don’t have Jesus in your life, you’re going to get burnout. It’s going to be very difficult to help those who are the hardest to serve, because they’re not easy to love.”
As for Action Inc., Lyons says, “There’s really no reason why they couldn’t open it (a temporary emergency shelter) except for their staffing. They don’t have staffing to do it. Their staff chooses not do it.”
But Seccomb strongly rejects the notion that her organization’s lack of religious affiliation has a negative effect on her group's ability to serve Butte’s most vulnerable citizens.
Praising Action Inc.’s employees for their devotion and singling out lead service advocate Steve Fournier in particular as someone with “more moral stamina than any human being I have ever seen,” Seccomb argues that her team does not lack commitment to “alleviating the burden of poverty” for those they encounter.
“We serve the person before us, regardless of their religion, their race, their gender,” Seccomb says. “And we treat everyone equally and with the respect that they deserve.”
And Seccomb says her staff will continue to work with the homeless in Butte despite the lack of a shelter.
“What we’re hoping to do is put together an intensive diversion program, and diversion is one of those pieces of a continuum-of-care system where you’re really trying to work on reconnecting people with their family and friends or getting them to a safe place,” Seccomb says. “And in our case, that would not be a shelter here but possibly a shelter in another community. So, again, we’re in just a situation where we’re trying to keep people safe.”
One strategy Action Inc. will continue to pursue is “very intensively rapidly rehousing as many people as we can and as quickly as we can with our rapid rehousing services,” Seccomb says. The agency also hopes to hire diversion specialists to help people find shelter and services.
As Lyons works to get her group’s new shelter up and running, she says she’s planning to expand her staff by about 12 to 15 Christian workers.
“I won’t hire anybody that doesn’t have a belief in Jesus Christ, because we’re faith-based,” Lyons says. “I mean, that’s what we do. We totally believe in restoration and transformation. And restoration and transformation can come from no place but through Jesus Christ.”
To accomplish that restoration and transformation, Lyons argues that “a person’s brain needs to be re-routed so they can manage their life.”
To that end, the mission is planning to transform an existing warehouse on the mission’s planned Center of Hope campus near the intersection of Arizona and East Platinum streets into a place where such conversions can occur.
According to Lyons, the converted warehouse will include showers, laundry facilities, a computer lab, a 25-seat classroom, a 75-seat chapel, and private counseling rooms for addiction support and Bible study. In addition, Lyons says the mission will offer a “multitude of programs” on everything from parenting to budgeting to interviewing for a job.
But before beginning work on the warehouse, perhaps as early as this spring, Lyons is focused on getting the campus’s 56-bed shelter up and running as soon as possible.
To do so, contractors are preparing to build a retaining wall on the southeast corner of the campus property and to pour concrete pads for the 16 modular units the mission will use for housing.
Four of those units are on adjacent property, Lyons says, and the rest will be “rolling in” soon.
Once that prep work is done and the units are in place, Lyons says sewer, water, and power utilities will have to be hooked up. Then, curb, gutters, sidewalks, and lighting will be added to the site. Asked whether such work can be completed before winter truly takes hold, Lyons expressed optimism.
“I think in Montana they (contractors) can find ways, even if the ground freezes,” Lyons says. “But I think we’ll be able to get it (the work) done before the ground freezes too solid.”
In the meantime, both women say they will do what they can to serve Butte’s homeless while the city remains without a shelter.
Lyons says the mission will offer food and clothing and, in some cases, gas cards and bus tickets to people from its existing location at 123 E. Park St.
Seccomb says Action Inc. will try to arrange for "warm handoffs" of the homeless to shelters in other Montana cities along with its existing rapid rehousing program and its planned diversion efforts .
But she also agrees it won't be easy.
“The hardest part for us is that we’re worried for people to be outside,” Seccomb says. “And they’re at our door. And it’s our front-line staff that has to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a shelter.’ So, it’s tough."
As for Lyons, she's hoping for the best until the shelter does open: “I really pray that there’s no severe weather.”