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With winter weather already creeping into fall, the Warming Center in Bozeman is preparing for a busy season.

The center is set to open on Nov. 1, and Human Resources Development Council Housing Director Brian Guyer said the nonprofit expects increased need for services while again dealing with with COVID-19.

To limit coronavirus spread, Guyer said staff will be doing health checks at the door by taking temperatures and asking screening questions. People who exhibit symptoms will be put up at the nearby motel for isolation, Guyer said. The nonprofit also have rapid tests on site.

HRDC expects to be at capacity from the start due to the increased number of Bozeman residents who are experiencing homelessness.

“It’s no secret there are a lot of people who are sleeping in RVs, sleeping in cars, sleeping in tents in public parks. In some ways, that’s what workforce housing looks like in our community,” Guyer said.

Guyer noted that many of the people who stay at the Warming Center are employed, with some working more than one job. Employees are waking up residents early for their shifts and keeping doors open late so people who work late can get back inside.

Guyer said another misconception is that many of the people experiencing homelessness are from out of town. The data HRDC collects does not support that theory, Guyer said.

“Most of the folks who are using housing shelter services, they’re from here, they might not be from Bozeman, but they’re from the surrounding communities,” Guyer said. “This is where their network is, and, a lot of times, this is where their jobs are, and they just found themselves at the bottom rung of the housing ladder.”

Jenna Huey, emergency shelter services manager for HRDC, said during the 2020-2021 season, the nonprofit had 390 people stay overnight at either the Warming Center or hotel rooms they had for COVID-19-related uses.

This year, it will have capacity for 120 people at the warming center on Wheat Drive, Guyer said. HRDC staff do have some contingency plans if more people are seeking shelter, Guyer said.

The average stay was 30 to 35 nights per person, Huey said. One in three of the people who stayed overnight were female, and 50% had a disabling condition.

This year, the Warming Center plans have daytime hours for the first time. The facility is scheduled to be open overnight from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., then will be closed from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.

For day services, it will open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then close again from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Guyer said the closures each day will give HRDC time to rearrange the furniture to prepare for day or night services.

At Bozeman Pond, where some people are living in tents in a small community, Brian — who declined to share his last name — said the expanded day hours are a positive.

“Every other year it’s just like ‘Get out there for 12 hours,’” Brian said. “Two years ago, people would go to the public library. But then COVID happened, and there was nowhere to go. Literally everyone was wandering around freezing to death or trying to find somebody with a car.”

Jamie, who also declined to give his last name, said some people prefer to stay in their cars rather than spending time in the Warming Center.

Guyer said some people have had traumatic experiences staying in congregate settings and prefer to stay in their vehicles or other places where they feel safer.

Keeping the facility open during the day will allow people to come inside to warm up and recharge, both literally and figuratively, Huey said. People will also be able to access the showers, laundry and food, Huey said, and talk to case managers about housing options.

“For some folks it’s mostly just about having that safe place to be able to get out of that survival mode, to be able to comprehend and think about next steps,” Huey said.

The Bozeman Outreach program between HRDC, the police department and the downtown business association is also preparing for the winter.

BPD Community Resources Officer Marek Ziegler said not too much is changing from his end, but the police department has plans to make people it interacts with aware of the services available at the Warming Center.

“Like everybody else, when it gets cold you worry about people being out in it for too long,” Ziegler said.

Last winter, seven people died in Bozeman as a result of exposure or related complications, Guyer said.

“We can’t continue to let that happen. That is not indicative of the community that Bozeman is. We can do better than that,” said Guyer, who also stressed the importance of getting a year-round, 24/7 shelter in town. “We’re a growing community, and we’re starting to deal with the issues that larger communities deal with, and larger communities require a year round shelter.”

Bozeman’s Warming Center is at 2015 Wheat Dr. The Warming Center in Livingston is at 121 South Second St. Both open Nov. 1, and are in need of both monetary donations and volunteers. More information can be found at thehrdc.org.

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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