The Butte Rescue Mission is now proposing that its planned homeless shelter near the city’s warehouse district include a separate unit where people who are drunk or high on drugs could sleep.
Mission officials say they recognize the need for such an “emergency, low-barrier” shelter, and others in Butte who serve or advocate for the homeless have pushed strongly for its inclusion.
They include a consortium of agencies and organizations called the Continuum of Care Coalition, the nonprofit social services agency Action Inc., and Father Patrick Beretta, a Catholic priest in Butte, Mission Executive Director Rocky Lyons said Wednesday.
When the Christian-based mission ran a homeless shelter in a house on East Second Street before it was closed for safety reasons in April 2017, it only allowed people who were drunk or high to sleep there if it was bitterly cold.
But if the county’s Zoning Board OKs a modified proposal on Sept. 20, one of several portable housing units making up the new homeless shelter would be set off on one side and reserved for them.
“As we started this project, that wasn’t a road we were going down,” Lyons said. “But after the project got underway and I really started looking at the project … it made sense to me to include a low-barrier shelter.”
Beretta said Wednesday that a low-barrier shelter was "the right thing to do" morally and ethically, would help prevent crimes and it could very well save lives during bitter cold weather.
“To me there is no homeless shelter without a low-barrier component,” he said.
Margie Seccomb, executive director of Action Inc. and a member of the coalition, also backs the move.
“Our push for this is to ensure no person dies outside due to lack of shelter,” she said.
The mission got a zoning permit last November to establish a homeless shelter on 1.6 acres at Arizona and East Platinum streets. Portable housing units would make up most of the campus, although plans are to eventually offer programs at a vacant warehouse on the site.
The mission is now asking the Zoning Board to OK the addition of one portable unit as a low-barrier shelter. It could serve up to 16 people each night even if they were drunk, high or were violent or sexual offenders as long as they posed no immediate threat to themselves or others.
Lyons said a private donor has given the mission $135,000 to buy the extra unit and do additional work to establish it as a low-barrier shelter on the site. The donor wants to remain anonymous for now, Lyons said.
The mission had previously purchased 11 portable units from North Dakota, where they were common housing during the oil boom in the Bakken Formation area. The mission’s units are now in eastern Montana, but two will be transported to Butte this week with more to come later, Lyons said.
There is still a lot of work to be done on the site itself, including utility connections, storm-water improvements and installing lights, curbs and gutters. The mission had hoped to open its main shelter by Oct. 8, but that might need to be pushed back a few weeks, Lyons said.
Under the newly modified plans, the low-barrier unit would be on the west side of the site and have a fence around the back. It would have its own separate staff and could house up to 10 men and six women on an emergency basis each night.
The mission has always served meals to those who might be drunk or high, but it says say people in those states can negatively affect others who are sober, in recovery or face other major challenges.
Because of that, they weren’t allowed to stay overnight unless weather demanded it. Others were barred, too, including sexual and violent offenders or those who had outstanding warrants.
Efforts would be made to get those in the low-barrier shelter into alternative housing quickly and connect them with needed health and social services, Lyons said. That is something Action Inc. and the Continuum of Care Coalition emphasize.
From the coalition’s perspective, Seccomb said, a low-barrier shelter acts as a “catch net” for those who can’t be permanently housed right away. People should have equal access to that regardless of mental illnesses or being under the influence, she said.
“From an Action Inc. perspective, we are thankful the community will have a low-barrier shelter and look forward to ensuring all those who enter the shelter have a very brief stay and move quickly to permanent housing,” Seccomb said.
Father Beretta said he would be traveling when the zoning board meets Sept. 20, but someone from his parish would speak in support of the low-barrier shelter that night.
He said he supports rapid-rehousing efforts, but says a shelter that will accept anyone who poses no immediate dangers is a “moral imperative.”
“Particularly in cold weather, we are protecting their lives and their health,” Beretta said. “We are protecting them from frostbite or death.”
Getting them off the streets is also good for the community, he said, because they are not breaking into places or committing other crimes or disrupting businesses or neighborhoods.