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On a Monday three weeks ago, Family Promise of Gallatin Valley received calls from three families seeking shelter. Already out of bed space, the staff got creative, moving their offices out of the building to make room for additional families – doubling their capacity.

This high demand is not an isolated incident but steady growth in the number of families seeking housing assistance in recent months, according to Christel Chvilicek, executive director of Family Promise of Gallatin Valley.

Chvilicek said her organization has seen an increase in housing needs from residents in the last month, well before the Bridger Foothills fire destroyed 28 homes in the Bridger Canyon area.

“We received three phone calls on that Monday from families that needed shelter, but we were out of space,” she said

Her organization anticipated there would be a higher need for housing and housing support during the pandemic. Before the wildfire ripped through Bridger Canyon, she estimated there would be a 93% increase in need from families they serve this year.

There were five families on the waiting list as of Thursday.

“We just take it day by day,” she said. “We are doing some alternative things,” she said, like converting office space to bed space and launching a new program in May to prevent families from losing housing in the first place.

The nation nonprofit Help Us Move In program partnered with Family Promise affiliates to help keep families in stable housing.

“We’re trying to stop evictions from happening and helping families move right into housing, including helping with moving costs and first and last months rent,” Chvilicek said.

Anna Edwards, family/school services coordinator with the Bozeman School District, said an increase in students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity is on the district’s radar for this school year, while measuring how to allocate resources to best support those students.

“Affordable housing is still a challenge in Bozeman and I have a feeling with our unemployment rates going up there may be more people struggling,” Edwards said.

She said schools identify students throughout the school year experiencing homelessness, which can take many forms.

It includes students staying at a shelter, multiple families living together, families that are camping, living in a vehicle, or staying in motels and unaccompanied youth living with friends or different family members but not with their parent or legal guardian.

Edwards said with the coronavirus it is particularly concerning to have multiple families living together. She’s heard of 12 people living in a two-bedroom apartment.

“Obviously, there would be some health concerns there and challenges to remote learning in a crowded environment,” she said.

Remote learning

When the schools moved to fully remote learning in March, it also presented challenges for both the district and shelters like Family Promise.

“My fear last spring was are we identifying all of the students that qualify, that need those supports?” Edwards said. “That can be a challenge with remote learning if we’re not seeing them on a daily basis and those few days they’re in touch.”

Chvilicek said Family Promise had to equip its locations with extra internet to meet the needs of remote learning for the students.

“One of our locations we have six children and in another we have about the same,” she said. “We started insuring we have fast enough internet to keep up.”

HRDC, which runs the Blueprint home serving youth experiencing homelessness, said staff pivoted to fully support the students in its program to complete virtual learning last spring.

There are currently three youth in the Blueprint program, but it plans to expand its capacity to 12 people after final approval from the city. Jeremy Alcoke, the Blueprint continuum coordinator with HRDC, said there are 10 individuals on the waitlist for the program.

Alcoke said referrals for its program come from organizations throughout the community, including the school district.

“We can do a lot of amazing things as an agency,” said Kendall Clifton-Short, economic development director with HRDC. “We do it even better when we partner with people. Last semester of the last school year was a very collaborate effort with Anna, counselors, mental health providers and staff at the schools.”

Last year, Edwards said they identified 114 Pre-K through 12th grade students throughout the year who needed housing related assistance

“It’s higher than usual by a little bit, but it’s difficult to say why. Were we able to identify all of the students in the spring? Was it higher in general because it just fluctuates? It’s hard to tell,” she said.

Edwards, Chvilicek and Clifton-Short said it’s not a case of financially vulnerable families being hit by just one struggle, but a perfect storm hitting them from multiple sides.

“It’s COVID and how fast our community is growing along with the cost of living. It’s a double effect,” Chvilicek said.

She said most families are experiencing a six- to eight-month wait-time to get into an affordable housing unit in Bozeman.

“It’s always a whole bunch of things and it’s never one thing,” Clifton-Short said. “We have to understand the big picture and all the implications of it.”

The district and housing experts emphasized the importance of stable social and emotional connections between teachers, counselors and other adults to help identify youth who need housing support.

“This whole pandemic is a challenge for everyone but if you don’t have a home during this time, that’s a bigger challenge,” Edwards said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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