Heather Grenier

HRDC CEO and president Heather Grenier stands in front of Christ the King Lutheran Church Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in Bozeman. HRDC uses the church as a temporary warming shelter at night.

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Each night, volunteers with the Human Resource Development Council transform the social hall of Christ the King Lutheran Church into an overnight homeless shelter, setting up cots with bedding around the room.

Each morning, they put it all away.

The church serves as a temporary, second Bozeman location for HRDC’s Warming Center and hosts women and families. The original Warming Center on Industrial Drive hit capacity two winters ago, prompting the need for an overflow location in January 2018. Christ the King has since filled that need, but it’s not ideal.

Setting up the cots and taking them down each morning is time-consuming. The church has scheduled events like book club and choir practice most nights, so people staying at the shelter — sometimes including young children — aren’t able to get in until 9 p.m. They check-in at the Industrial Drive location and are bused to the church.

Further, staffing and operating two Warming Center locations in Bozeman has left the program about $100,000 short in its operating budget for this year. It may have to suspend service before the end of March when it would typically close.

Heather Grenier, president of HRDC, said it’s not the first time there’s been a deficit.

“Every year it’s been a struggle. I think we’ve consistently raised what we’ve raised in past years. The challenge is that staffing and running two locations is a significant increase in cost,” Grenier said.

Grenier said staff have been searching for at least two years for a larger space to lease or buy to house the Warming Center without success. She said they’ve looked at more than 30 different properties.

HRDC has plans to build a year-round homeless shelter that’ll allow up to 120 people per night and also house the food bank. In the best case scenario, it won’t be move-in ready until late 2022, Grenier said.

That leaves HRDC looking for more space in the meantime, which has been increasingly challenging as the homeless population grows.

In 2011, the first season the Warming Center opened, it sheltered around 70 people over three months, averaging 10 to 15 people per night. That year, it was the Greater Gallatin Homeless Action Coalition (GGHAC) who raised money and got the shelter open. The group formed after a man died in Bozeman while sleeping in a U-Haul truck in January 2007.

Last year, The Warming Center sheltered about 260 people over five months, with 45 to 55 people staying per night.

Bozeman is one of the fastest growing cities under 50,000 people in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It will likely break that 50,000 threshold when the 2020 Census is completed. It’s also becoming one of the least affordable places to live in the state.

A 2019 housing needs assessment from the city of Bozeman found that around 55% of people in town are paying more than 30% of their income on housing, which is considered a cost burden, leaving insufficient money to cover other expenses. A 2018 study commissioned by Zillow found that towns where rents exceed 32% of people’s incomes are likely to see a rapid increase in homelessness, and that when it reaches that threshold, “even modest rent increases” can lead to more people without homes.

Of course, that affects much more than just the emergency shelter. HRDC has 300 people on a waiting list for 12 townhomes that will be sold below market price this year. Affordable housing is a major talking point among city officials and the city commission endorsed an affordable housing action plan last year.

As HRDC attempts to account for this growth, one of its greatest challenges is the same as the people it serves — finding affordable properties. The nonprofit’s latest endeavor to provide emergency shelter for Bozeman’s homeless is an example of that struggle, and it will require a roughly $300,000 loan from the city’s general fund to make it happen.

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Grenier said staff have exhausted nearly every available option to house its second Warming Center for women and families. She said HRDC was often turned down after submitting letters of intent to lease space. That’s when they started looking for places to buy, Grenier said.

In October 2019, HRDC finalized the purchase of a house on Westridge Drive in the Figgins neighborhood. It’s a 4,000-square-foot home with eight bedrooms and four bathrooms, and appeared to have adequate space to meet the shelter’s needs.

The nonprofit applied for a special use permit with the city and notified the immediate neighbors of the plan.

There was pushback.

Some neighbors expressed concern that the home was close to Morning Star School and that their kids would walk by (the house would have been occupied from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.). Other concerns stemmed from HRDC’s low-barrier entry policy, allowing women and families to stay at the home without undergoing a background check. Some were frustrated with the pace at which the project moved. Others were concerned that guests of the shelter would wander the neighborhood at night and would be too far from town to catch a bus.

Grenier said the nonprofit has heard these concerns before. They’re not unique to Bozeman, either.

“There’s not a backyard that exists anywhere that people want this,” Grenier said.

She said generally speaking, these concerns aren’t based in the reality of what service providers see while working with the homeless population.

Bozeman’s City Commission voted in 2018 to create rules to allow for emergency or transitional housing in commercial and residential areas in city limits. It outlined stipulations for a shelter to be established, like clear conduct codes and an intake process for residents. HRDC created a plan to meet the stipulations that was part of its application for a special use permit for the Westridge home.

Commissioner Terry Cunningham, who also serves on the Community Affordable Housing Advisory Board, said the rules were created because no other part of the code addressed emergency and transitional housing, and that it limited where shelters could be established. He said that because guests of the Warming Center are Bozeman residents, it should fit into the residential code.

Cunningham said it’s important to remember who makes up the population.

“When we picture homelessness, we often picture people with signs near Walmart when the face of homelessness is more likely to be a working person or a family living in their car who had an unexpected bill they couldn’t afford,” Cunningham said.

As neighbors voiced concerns to city officials, HRDC put its plans on hold. City staff never issued a decision on the permit. HRDC then realized that the Westridge home was not actually suitable for the shelter’s needs. Staff planned for a capacity of more than 30 people. That was reduced to 16 upon re-evaluation of city code, which is less than the capacity at Christ the King, Grenier said.

HRDC decided to sell the home. It’s under contract with a buyer and is listed at $449,000 on Zillow.

The overflow location for women and families will stay at Christ the King for the time being.

A long-term plan is in the works. HRDC has signed a lease for a building on the north side of Bozeman. The property on Wheat Drive would become the new, main Warming Center, with the shelter leaving Industrial Drive and hopefully ending the need for an overflow location. The $10,000 per month lease is a five-year contract with the option to buy it for $1.4 million at the end of the contract.

That building also needs $296,520 in improvements to meet health and safety requirements.

The nonprofit requested that amount from the city of Bozeman’s Workforce Housing Fund, which contains $900,000 right now. The Community Affordable Housing Advisory Board helps decide where that money goes and voted Wednesday to recommend that the city commission approve a no-interest loan for the requested amount, but not before members asked some questions.

Steve Wheeler, a member of the board, asked Grenier at Wednesday’s meeting if the property is appraised for the amount the nonprofit would put into it if it purchases the building at the end of the five years.

Grenier answered no.

“If we had freedom of choice of the building we would like, it would not be this building. We have exhausted 30 different sites over the last two years trying to find a spot that would meet our needs. There’s not one that makes sense,” Grenier said.

The Bozeman City Commission will consider the request next.

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Bob Buzzas, director of the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, said lacking housing stock and money is common for social service providers across the state. He said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the coalition, is more focused in some areas on establishing permanent housing rather than emergency housing through its grants.

“As ideal as that is, we’re always going to need emergency shelters,” Buzzas said.

Buzzas said he thinks that the state has improved its response to homelessness in the last couple of years when state agencies, like the Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Department of Commerce, became more collaborative. Surveys indicate that as a whole, the homeless population is decreasing in Montana.

Kevin Thane, chair of the advisory board and part of the Greater Gallatin Homeless Action Coalition, said after Wednesday’s meeting that he appreciates HRDC has also worked in a collaborative way.

“They’re resilient and they don’t let the ball drop. They get the job done,” Thane said.

Thane said most social service providers have been put in a tough spot in the last few years — not only because of increased demand, but also due to cuts made to funding sources like federal housing grants and state money for mental health care. He said a cut to any social service can make it difficult to treat the whole person.

“It’s all a web,” Thane said.

The 2020 Census will likely make a difference in the amount of money available to Bozeman. Missoula and Billings have long had access to federal Housing and Urban Development grants for emergency housing programs because they have populations greater than 50,000. Once Bozeman hits that threshold, it will be able to seek that money, too.

But emergency housing is just one small step in getting people into stable, permanent homes.

Grenier said the Warming Center is an introduction to what else HRDC has to offer, like rental assistance vouchers, foreclosure prevention and heating bill assistance. HRDC also runs the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, Head Start Preschool and the free Streamline bus service, among other programs.

Grenier said she thinks the nonprofit has been successful in helping Bozemanites get back on their feet, that it provides adequate interventions for all stages of housing instability. She said last year, HRDC connected 35 families to permanent housing after they used the Warming Center.

“Our ultimate goal is always to get everyone to a spot where they’re thriving and can maintain on their own, if that’s possible for them,” Grenier said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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