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Butte's weather turns frigid as local officials hold last-minute talks about homelessness

Heart of Butte Community Cafe volunteer Joan Heinz, right, waves to a familiar face while chatting with Shawna Mickel during dinner at the local restaurant. Mickel says last winter she was homeless but got help to find a home through Action Inc. and the warming shelter. "Butte needs to come together to afford a shelter, because people are gonna freeze to death," Mickel said.

On Friday morning, a small group of officials from local religious, social services, health care, and government entities held an emergency meeting to discuss what to do about Butte’s ongoing lack of a homeless shelter as winter sets in.

“We talked about where we’re at and how we’re going to work through these cold months and what our overall strategy might be,” says Karen Byrnes, Butte-Silver Bow’s community development director.

While no hard plan had yet emerged by Friday afternoon, Byrnes said those in attendance agreed to start looking at existing funding sources to create a single location in town where people in need would be able to access resources — such as gas cards, hotel vouchers, and referrals to services — that would offer them a “clear path” to warmth, safety, and — if possible — more permanent solutions to their lack of housing.

According to Byrnes, this “intensified diversion approach for folks in need of shelter” is one that “fits within the system we’re trying to build.”

By “we,” Byrnes means Butte’s Continuum of Care Coalition, a multi-agency group that seeks ways to end homelessness by providing permanent, supportive housing to those in need.

And at Friday morning’s meeting, she was joined by a small subgroup of CoC Coalition members, including Butte Catholic Community North Parish Priest Patrick Beretta, St. James Healthcare Vice President of Strategy and Business Development Kevin Dennehy, Action Inc. CEO Margie Seccomb, and county Chief Executive Dave Palmer.

Ultimately, Byrnes says, the coalition’s aim is to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-reoccurring” with a shelter serving as a “last resort.”

The Butte Rescue Mission aimed to have such a shelter up and running by Oct. 8. But last month, the group determined that opening would have to be delayed until mid-December.

Butte has been without a permanent homeless shelter since April 2017, when the mission’s longtime home on East Second Street was closed due to fire code and safety violations. Last fall, Action Inc. opened a temporary emergency shelter in the former Homeward Bound building on North Main Street to fill the lack of a local shelter. But since that facility closed in May, Butte has been without a place for those without a home to sleep.

And this year, Action Inc. has declined to open such a round-the-clock, full-service shelter again.

While Byrnes says that that model remains off the table, she adds that the group did discuss at Friday’s meeting the possibility of opening a warming shelter that would be “for sleeping only.”

Though such plans remain tentative, those who are engaged in the long-term effort to aid Butte homeless say it’s imperative that local groups come together to find solutions.

Randel Paul is the board president of Heart of Butte, a local nonprofit devoted to issues of food insecurity, and manager of the Heart of Butte Community Café, a Park Street eatery that uses donations for daytime meals to help feed people who are homeless or hungry in the early evening.

Paul says he’s “very” worried about the city not having a shelter for at least part of this winter, “because without a shelter in place, we’re afraid that we’re going to be looked at a warming shelter during the day.” And Paul says having the café serve as a de facto warming shelter could harm his group’s ability to raise money from paying customers to pay for food for those who can’t afford it.

Despite such concerns, Paul says he’s resolved to prioritize keeping people warm and safe at all costs.

“I’m not going to throw them out in the cold,” he says. “I just can’t do that. … If I have to, I said (to the Heart of Butte board) I’ll open the restaurant during the night. They (the homeless) can’t sleep here, but they can drink coffee and stay warm. ... If I have to do that, I’ll do that, because I don’t know the answer.”

And Paul isn’t the only one concerned about pressures being applied by homeless people with nowhere to go this winter.

Dennehy, of St. James Healthcare, says the hospital faces two main issues in dealing with Butte’s homeless.

“One, we see people out in the cold, and they’re homeless and they’re sick,” Dennehy says. “We’ll see them, and we’ll treat, and we have to discharge them. And where do we discharge them to? They have no place to go. … So they’re back on the streets, and they keep coming into the ED (emergency department), and they’re sicker and sicker.”

The other issue has to do with the fact that the hospital is one of the few places in town open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which means it’s one of the few places the homeless can go at night to warm up.

“And that’s fine if we have the space,” Dennehy says, “but sometimes the ED’s pretty busy. ... And it’s tough when we do have emergencies and we’re trying to treat someone who's been in a car wreck or some other tragedy. We can’t handle that and a group of homeless people at the same time.”

Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester has his own concerns about additional pressure applied by the local lack of a shelter, which he expects will lead to “an increase in the number of people we take in for protective custody.” That entails booking people who are out in the cold into a holding cell for the night to warm up and rest.

With the county detention center already struggling with overcrowding, Lester says he’s worried what that will mean.

“It’ll stress our resources more than they already are,” Lester says, “but there’s really not an option.”

As members of the CoC Coalition focus on diversion, the effects of Butte not having a shelter this winter are likely to be felt beyond the bounds of Silver Bow County. In fact, according to Dave Miller, director of God’s Love, a shelter in Helena, those effects are already being felt.

“We have been seeing more individuals coming from Butte for months now,” Miller says. “We used to not see very many, but now we are. … Usually we have 10 or 15 staying here in our men’s shelter during the summer, and this year, we had about 25, 26, all the time, out of 31 beds. Although we didn’t reach capacity … we did see the numbers jump way up.”

Despite such increased pressure, Miller said his shelter will “make do,” whatever happens. And officials from the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings and the Great Falls Rescue Mission expressed similar commitments to accommodate homeless people diverted from Butte.

But Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of Missoula’s Poverello Center, said her shelter simply doesn’t “have the room to accommodate people from other communities.”

Noting that the Poverello has already had to implement strict restrictions on how many people it serves, Allison Thompson says, “If we bring people to our shelter, we’ll just have to turn more people away.”

As Butte works to fill the gap left by a lack of a shelter, those who are involved expressed hope that solutions are forthcoming and that the Rescue Mission will be part of the answer. (The mission's executive director, Rocky Lyons, declined to comment for this story.)

Calling himself a “big supporter of the mission,” Beretta says he “would like the mission’s role to be a team player” as so many area groups come together and collaborate in search of answers.

“Our community is too small and has too few resources,” Beretta says. “We don’t have the luxury of not being able to work together. We have to make it work, and there is absolutely no reason in my mind why this should not be possible.”

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