MISSOULA — Paul Barnes never expected to be homeless.
After serving in the United States military during the Vietnam War, Barnes returned home and moved to North Dakota, enrolled in college with the help of the GI Bill, started a business and bought a house. Eventually, he moved to Chinook, Montana — a tiny town not far from the Canadian border — to live with his retired parents.
“It was a wonderful time in my life,” Barnes said.
Barnes still experienced loss after his military service. First his partner passed away, and later so did his father. That’s when things began to unravel. In Chinook, Barnes had been living with his parents in their house. Days after his father died, Barnes says, he learned arrangements had been made for the house to be donated to a local church and for his mother to move into a small apartment.
Barnes lost his housing and turned to the streets for shelter.
“I felt real crummy,” he says. “I felt like a failure, really depressed and a little bit nervous.”
Barnes is one of Montana’s nearly 100,000 veterans, many of whom are homeless or just one lost paycheck, one eviction or one medical crisis away from being forced to live on the streets.
Almost half of Montana’s veterans are 65 years old or older, and people of color — particularly those from Indigenous communities — are overrepresented in military service compared to their population in the state. According to the Housing Assistance Council, a national nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing in rural areas, almost 10% of Montana’s veterans live in poverty, and the unemployment rate outpaces that of the state as a whole.
Barnes found his way in February 2015 to the Poverello Center in Missoula where a new program called Housing Montana Heroes had recently launched to provide transitional housing for veterans looking to eventually move into a permanent residence. He says his two years at the state’s largest homeless shelter helped him get things “back on track.”
“It was a safe place to work on the things I need to work on and to figure out how this system could work for me,” he says. Barnes now lives in a house of his own and serves on the board of directors for the Poverello Center.
Today, Housing Montana Heroes serves about 35 veterans, offering them housing and food, resources and support from a caseworker and the opportunity to develop life and career skills.
The program’s growth, however, has been limited by the size of the Poverello Center’s property on West Broadway, which means it can serve only a fraction of the roughly 10% of Montana’s nearly 1,550 people experiencing homelessness who are veterans.
However, Housing Montana Heroes will soon purchase the Clark Fork Inn downtown. For nearly 20 years, the Clark Fork Inn has served as an alternative housing option for low-income residents, some of whom have been veterans, to rent units on a monthly basis at an affordable cost. As part of the agreement, the Poverello Center must offer the 17 people currently living in the Clark Fork Inn housing alternatives.
Supporters say the purchase will expand the number of people Housing Montana Heroes can house and improve its capacity to serve homeless veterans and reduce homelessness across the state. It will also free up space in the Poverello Center for more tenants.
The model has been used elsewhere across the country, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Veterans’ Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families division, the agency during that time was making 1,900 monthly referrals for veterans to move into hotels. For example, veterans moved into transitional housing at Candlewood Suites hotels in Texas, and California launched a massive effort to purchase hotels as permanent supportive housing sites to address its growing population of people experiencing homelessness, many of whom are veterans.
“Veteran homelessness is a failure of systems — not people — and it requires the people who run those systems and the people who use those systems to work together to create better systems that prevent and end homelessness,” said Caroline Cournoyer, spokesperson for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Currently, participants in the program live on the second floor of the Poverello Center. They typically share a room with a roommate and use a common bathroom.
Though they have access to their own space within the building, group shelter settings can be difficult for veterans who experience high rates of trauma-related mental health disorders.
“On a quiet day, there are still over 100 people in the building,” said Jill Bonny, executive director of the Poverello Center. “That can be a lot for somebody with any sort of trauma.”
The Housing Montana Heroes hotel property, also on West Broadway, will have 20 rooms where veterans will each have a private unit and bathroom, and there will be few barriers to entry. For example, Bonny says that while substance use is prohibited on site, a person who is believed to be intoxicated will not be kicked out of the program or off the property.
That approach stems from research into the housing-first model — a school of thought that says homelessness is best addressed by giving people housing without any conditions and then other good things will follow, such as a job, mental health care and reduced substance use — and a national shift in the rhetoric around how to curb homelessness among veterans. But it also mirrors Barnes’ view based on his experience.
“I think it’s very important for veterans to have these kinds of programs,” he says. “I don’t know if they should get a better space, but they should get a separate space.”
Funding for the $4.8 million project comes from several agencies and government entities, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Montana Department of Commerce, the city of Missoula and Missoula County. It will open in 2024 for Housing Montana Heroes participants.
Programs such as Housing Montana Heroes are not a permanent solution for homeless veterans, Cournoyer says. For instance, participants can live there for no more than two years, which means ensuring the availability of other services is critical.
“Housing is the immediate solution to homelessness — but not the only solution,” Cournoyer says. “For many people, housing isn’t sustainable without supportive services to help them address the problems that made them lose their home in the first place.”
As a rural state, Montana presents particular challenges to providing those kinds of services. Hundreds of miles could stand between an individual in need of counseling or health care and the nearest provider.
Being enlisted in the Heroes program at the Poverello Center helps people access many of their needs in one place. They can access services such as job placement, housing assistance and counseling all at one site, and receive additional help through support groups and a place to talk with other veterans.
Many veterans struggle with PTSD, so a controlled, safe space for living and other care is essential to help them move out of homelessness. The Clark Fork Inn will provide that kind of environment, according to Bonny.
But for qualifying veterans who cannot or don’t want to move to Missoula, there’s still work to be done to expand care options into rural areas, she adds.
For example, Bonny says veterans typically have to travel to Fort Harrison in Helena for dental care. It could take months to get an appointment, and many don’t have cars or reliable transportation. Even the VA benefits office in Missoula is a mile away from the closest Mountain Line bus stop.
“The more access to services in their community that are paid for by their provider, the better,” Bonny says.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has advocated for expansion of such services, including federal funding for programs like Housing Montana Heroes.
“The bottom line is we can’t continue relying on half-measures to support those who served,” Tester told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in July 2021.
Housing Montana Heroes doesn’t offer all these services on its own. A huge part of its efforts is to help veterans understand what kinds of resources are already available to them and how to access that support, according to both Bonny and Barnes.
The Poverello Center’s case managers have also become experts in government bureaucracy and routinely work with the VA to get answers for veterans.
Bonny says she often sees how helping people connect with the benefits they are owed after their military service helps fill some of the gaps that veterans often face once they return home, especially those who come from lower-income households or underserved communities.
“There’s not always a lot of support for the individual once they come back, and I think that’s where a lot of the breakdown happens,” Bonny says. “We hear of so many unimaginable situations that veterans encountered while they were serving, and because they needed to continue on they turned to substances. A lot of the veterans I talk to, when they come home, they need help, support and understanding that they are maybe different than they were when they left.”
Beyond connecting veterans with resources, Housing Montana Heroes also aims to let them know that there’s no shame in asking for help.
“There’s plenty of help through Veterans’ Affairs, but it seems as though a lot of people have a hard time asking for help,” Barnes says. “They feel as though they should be self-sufficient and fix themselves. But I am here to tell you that it doesn’t work that way.”
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