HELENA — Earlier this year, the executive director of the YWCA women’s shelter in Helena was researching tools to fend off a contagion: bottles of bleach, shower curtains as room dividers, and a strict daily schedule for dozens of people living in one building.

“[We have] a shared kitchen. We have four bathrooms [and] shared laundry,” said Director Jen Gursky, who said she informally took the title of “COVID Czar” in March. “What we had to do is figure out, how do we separate our uses for all of those spaces in those early days? Because we just didn’t know what we were dealing with.”

Other shelters, particularly for families experiencing homelessness, faced many of the same quandaries about how to protect their residents. 

“How do we quarantine people? What do we do if we have an infection?” said Jenny Eck, director of the Friendship Center, a Helena shelter for people fleeing domestic and sexual violence. “How do we prevent infection in the first place?”

The COVID-19 pandemic, for many shelters and residents, has proven to be a distinct challenge compared to other disasters, such as fires or floods. Part of the difficulty comes from a tangled web of bureaucratic procedures and relief funds at the federal, state and local levels. But nearly five months into the crisis, some providers also describe feeling forgotten or misunderstood by policy makers, to the detriment of the populations they serve. 

“COVID is bringing up all sorts of issues around equality in our communities and how we perceive people,” Eck said. “And this is highlighting it.”

LIMITED SPACE AND FUNDING

When the novel coronavirus began to spread throughout the U.S., several programs and shelters for homeless people in Montana realized that their infrastructure was insufficient to protect their communities. The Poverello Center in Missoula started limiting the number of people allowed in the shelter at one time, particularly during meals, in order to decrease the risk of infection. Some residents left the shelter entirely, deciding that sleeping outside was safer. The Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell temporarily closed, saying it could not safely continue to serve people overnight. 

But not every shelter can decrease its number of residents or safely expand its capacity. Many occupants, particularly those with young children, are either intent on holding on to the room they have or are simply in no position to leave. Meanwhile, program directors have struggled to safely accommodate new arrivals, sometimes at the behest of state agencies.

Gursky said her organization recently admitted a woman who was working with the state’s Child and Family Services to regain custody of her child.

“What they’re saying is, this woman has enough support at the YWCA to learn how to become a mother,” Gursky said. “And there’s nowhere else [CPS] would feel confident in placing that person. So what are we supposed to do?”

“COVID is bringing up all sorts of issues around equality in our communities and how we perceive people. And this is highlighting it.”

Jenny Eck, director of the Friendship Center shelter in Helena

Gursky and Eck, along with program operators across the state, have spent months advocating for more options for Montanans at the margins: those who suddenly lost their housing and can’t be admitted to a shelter, people who need a safe place to quarantine, or current shelter residents who have been exposed to the virus. Such options would be similar to Missoula’s purchase of the Sleepy Inn Motel to house people who test positive or are especially at risk of catching and spreading the disease and don’t have other quarantine options.

But temporary housing solutions have been difficult for cities to orchestrate, partly because of a limited reimbursement agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. In April, Montana successfully negotiated federal assistance for non-congregant shelter, such as hotel rooms, but only in specific situations. A person eligible for such shelter must test positive for COVID-19 or be directly exposed to the virus, or be considered “high-risk” by virtue of age or underlying health conditions. Those restrictions effectively eliminate the possibility of federal reimbursement to house people who are asymptomatic, leaving shelter operators to pay for hotel rooms and apartments out of their own budgets and curbing the financial involvement of local government agencies.

“The county has to front the cost to a substantial degree,” said Adriane Beck, director of Missoula’s Office of Emergency Management. “It is an incredible leap for [local] elected officials to say, yeah, we’ll do this.”

There are other buckets of federal funding that local governments can tap, to varying degrees. Missoula used Community Development Block Grants to hire a dedicated COVID-19 social worker and support the Poverello Center in its outreach and sanitation efforts, as one of three Montana cities that received designated carve-outs from CDBG funds included in the CARES Act. Billings and Great Falls received approximately $387,000 and $475,500, respectively, while Missoula got just over $339,000.

The CARES Act also allocated more than $2.5 million for Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) in Montana, specifically for temporary shelter and rapid rehousing costs. Jon Ebelt, spokesman for Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, said those funds have been divided around the state based on poverty levels and population. But Ebelt also said Montana did not receive the first batch of those funds until June, partly explaining why many service providers spent the last four months paying for apartments and hotel rooms out of their own budgets.

For shelter operators and program directors, the existence of government funding does not always translate to accessibility or effectiveness. 

“We do have CDBG money, but it’s tied up somewhere. It’s not accessible the way we need it. Which is, we need it now,” said Erika Willis, executive director of Tumbleweed, a Billings-based organization working to end youth homelessness. She said the organization has begun helping youth keep up with rental payments or find temporary living situations. 

State and federal funding was especially hard to come by for programs working on rapid response in the early days of the crisis. In the Flathead, the Samaritan House shelter temporarily added more than two dozen new beds for unhoused people between April and June, largely because of a collaboration with the Flathead County Health Department and local funders. The organization was able to apply for a $10,000 grant from the state’s broader coronavirus relief fund, which Executive Director Chris Krager said was helpful, but covered only a fraction of the roughly $37,000 in monthly expenses to operate the expanded shelter, which opened during Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive.

“We hit immediate, full capacity on day one at the new temporary shelter because everything was closed,” Krager told Montana Free Press in May. “It’s like 1:30 in the afternoon and everybody in the room is on their bunk, sleeping, snoring. Those folks were so exhausted. They’d already been in a shelter-in-place mandated area with no services available for two or three weeks by the time we finally got coordinated enough to open.”

GAPS IN BUDGETS AND EDUCATION

Many service providers are blunt when criticizing what they see as the neglect of homeless and severely low-income people by various government agencies and officials. That perception is partly rooted in the confusion of multiple levels of government coordinating a nearly unprecedented disaster response. Even after federal funding was designated and eventually released to state agencies, Montana officials were tasked with sifting through the money’s restrictions and permitted uses before making it available to direct service providers. 

Even then, local officials have been asked to fill in the monetary gaps. Lewis and Clark County contributed $25,000 to help cover temporary hotel stays for people who are homeless. The cities of Helena and East Helena, as well as the Rocky Mountain Development Council, have also pitched in a collective $81,500.

“It is really very difficult for people, as we pick our way forward through this pandemic minefield, to get it just right. And it’s never going to be perfect,” said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise. “What the county is set up to do is ‘emergency.’ A fire, an earthquake, a flood. Nothing that’s going to last months and months into the future. No one is set up for that. And yet, here we are.”

But service providers have also described instances in which officials seemed to lack empathy for homeless people and disregard the concerns of shelter operators. When asked in July what the county could do for a homeless family if a parent tested positive for the coronavirus, Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Coordinator Reese Martin told shelter operators children would have to be placed in foster care if their parent or guardian did not have an alternative child care plan. Program administrators responded with shock. 

“Who among us would ever say it’s OK for the government to come in and take my kids if I come down with COVID? That’s insane. It’s insane. You’d have riots in the street,” Eck said. “So why do we think it’s OK to talk about poor people that way? It’s not.”

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In an interview with Montana Free Press, Martin said he considered his proposal a last resort after all other options had been exhausted, and that Lewis and Clark County is now working with shelter operators and parents to come up with alternative child care plans.

“What the county is set up to do is ‘emergency.’ A fire, an earthquake, a flood. Nothing that’s going to last months and months into the future. No one is set up for that. And yet, here we are.”

Susan good geise, lewis and clark county commissioner

Other service providers also described frustrated efforts to be understood and included in policy discussions about Montana’s homeless population. Tumbleweed’s Willis said securing consistent funding during the pandemic for homeless youth services has been a fight. She also said she would have been “naive” to expect otherwise.

“It’s a reflection of how leadership in our community — their mindset about homelessness already,” Willis said. “I just wish that at that level, there would have been providers helping to make those decisions. People who are in the housing world who get it.”

Program operators are not expecting the demand for shelter beds and temporary housing to diminish anytime soon, even as financing methods remain unclear. Congress could allocate additional funding to bolster Emergency Services Grants for unstably housed people, but advocates counter that even those two-year grants are not sustainable.

“This ESG kind of funding is very, very helpful — we’re very appreciative of it. But it’s really kind of a stopgap, and potentially could even put people at the edge of a cliff,” said Bob Buzzas, director of Montana’s Continuum of Care Coalition, the umbrella organization for service providers statewide. Buzzas said he’s been appealing to Montana’s congressional delegation for more permanent housing support and Section 8 vouchers, especially for residents who are chronically homeless or disabled.

“I don’t think we’re housing them for as long as we need to be in order to be sure that they are stable,” Buzzas said. “And when we finally achieve that, whether it’s in six months or two years … then we need to be able to make sure that they have continued housing support, because most of these people are not going to be earning incomes that pay for full rent.”

Buzzas, however, resisted characterizing chronic underfunding of homeless services as an indicator that government entities don’t care about those populations.

“I refuse to believe that it’s a lack of compassion. If I accepted that, that’s just so debilitating and so undermining,” Buzzas said. “In order to continue working forward and making progress, I just have to believe that we’re not doing enough education. And we just need to keep trying to educate policymakers on what the state of homelessness is.”


CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Missoula used CDBG funds to help purchase the Sleepy Inn Motel. That is incorrect. The article was updated July 23, 2020, with the accurate uses of that funding.

Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.