Like an increasing number of Bozeman residents, Belinda and Steven Ankney live out of a vehicle.
The couple of 13 years has been living in a trailer parked in a series of spots around Bozeman for two and a half years and has been working to get into a more permanent home that entire time.
“I always tell myself this paycheck will be the one,” Belinda Ankney said through tears. “It’s never the one.”
Their vehicle doesn’t provide everything they need. Frigid temperatures can make life dangerous, and they worry about their vehicle being towed as the number of cars and trailers functioning as homes grows in Bozeman and overtakes some streets.
And people can be cruel to those living on the street. The couple has had their trailer egged and its windows broken. As they stood in the snow and cold speaking to a reporter recently, the windows of their neighbor’s car had also been smashed.
When Steven ventures out to ask strangers for money, he said, he is often harassed.
“We all work. We all try to survive, and I don’t deserve to be called names because I’m asking for help,” he said. Belinda works as a housekeeper at a local hotel. Steven works at a car parts store.
Living out of a trailer or a car in the winter isn’t cheap. Many people rely on generators, which can use large amounts of gas, to stay warm.
“It’s expensive being homeless,” Steven said.
What’s more, the couple has three kids, ages 12, 14 and 16.
One potential solution is the Warming Center, a facility run by the Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) and Bozeman’s only emergency homeless shelter.
But when the Ankneys stopped by the center for showers recently, they said, they saw a guest smoking what they thought was methamphetamine in a bathroom stall. As recovering addicts, they sympathized with the person but said it was “tough for us to be around that.”
“It makes it tougher on people trying to stay sober,” Steven said.
The Ankneys’ plight — on the street and in the Warming Center — reveals much of what has made life so hard for the homeless and urban campers of Bozeman, and highlights that homelessness is among the most difficult problems facing the city as its population balloons.
According to Montana’s Continuum of Care Coalition and a nonprofit organization called Pathways MISI, the rate of homelessness in Bozeman increased by 35% from 2019 to 2021, and the number of people seeking out the Warming Center increased by 47%.
Recent numbers are even more drastic: In December of 2021, an average of 43 people a night utilized the Warming Center. In November 2022 the average was 77, according to Penny Johnson, communications manager for the HRDC. That’s a 79% increase.
That trend is in part connected to Bozeman’s lack of affordable housing. According to Zillow, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bozeman is currently $2,049, and the city’s rental vacancy rate is consistently under 2%. With the median price of a single-family home in Bozeman hovering near $900,000, the idea of buying a house is an unattainable pipedream for many.
Jasper, who fears backlash and asked that his real name not be used for this story, lives out of his RV in an urban encampment on Flora Lane, just west of Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply on North Seventh Avenue. It’s a tough way to live, he said.
“The attitude against us — that’s the problem with Bozeman,” said Jasper, who said he has been homeless or lived in a vehicle in several cities. “People tell me, ‘Go get a job.’ I’m working 60 hours a week.”
Jasper’s friend, Eric Gritzinger Sr., said his belongings were set on fire while he was staying in Lindley Park on the city’s east side. He believes the culprit was someone harassing the homeless community.
Nick Acker, who worked at the Warming Center for five years and has lived in Bozeman since 2009, said there’s a gaping discrepancy between what “Bozeman says it is and what it actually is.”
“It’s lauded as this idyllic mountain college town,” Acker said. “That’s far from the reality.”
The removal of homeless people from various Bozeman parks and recreation areas started last summer after the Warming Center expanded its availability to 365 days a year. With a shelter open all year and beds available, the city can now force homeless people to leave public spaces. That authority follows a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit homeless people filed against the city of Boise, Idaho.
Bozeman police and the city attorney appear to be interpreting the decision at face value.
“As long as there’s a shelter space we can remove them from the park,” Bozeman Police Capt. Joseph Swanson told Montana Free Press.
Over the course of the summer, the city conducted three sweeps of encampments — one at Bozeman Pond and one at the East Gallatin Recreation Area, followed by another at the recreation area later in the summer. City parks were also checked weekly following the first sweep by a community resource officer and a member of HRDC, said Bozeman Assistant City Attorney Anna Saverud. Homeless people were warned that if they didn’t leave within a few days, authorities would remove their belongings, Saverud and Swanson said.
Gritzinger did not comply in time and said his Lindley Park campsite and belongings were put in a dumpster. (Saverud said everyone’s belongings are stored in a downtown facility.)
Those sweeps changed Bozeman’s homeless landscape.
“Before a couple months ago it seemed like everyone was piled everywhere in the parks,” Gritzinger said.
As Bozeman’s housing crisis grows, it appears to be manifesting as people living out of their vehicles, rows and rows of cars and RVs parked along numerous city streets.
“There’s more vans on the streets than ever before,” Acker said.
One of the few alternatives to the street is the Warming Center.
The Warming Center is open from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., with Friday and Saturday being overnight-only. But in a couple months, these hours could look different, depending on funding.
Last year was the first year the center was open through the summer, which cost nearly an additional $242,000. Gallatin County contributed $50,000, and $75,000 came from the COVID-19 CARES Act. The rest is from the city’s community housing fund.
But fundraising is constant for the center. The city has pledged money for the 2023 summer, but not enough to keep it open the whole season, said Brian Guyer, director of housing for HRDC. HRDC is still working on securing donations to keep the facility open through this winter, he added.
Bozeman’s former Warming Center on Industrial Drive, which operated from 2012 to 2020, held only 40 guests. The current one, housed in an old roller skating rink at 2015 Wheat Dr., can hold about 100 guests and 120 in a pinch, Guyer said. During the winter, the center will house 80 to 90 guests — who are never charged for their stay — on a normal night.
The center typically has one staff person working for every 50 guests. At night, during the “intense part of the shift,” there will be three to four staffers on duty, Guyer said.
But those ratios often don’t keep altercations and arguments from boiling over, multiple guests of the center told MTFP.
“The whole week there’s been nonstop fights,” Ame Michel-Barbeier said in late October, around the time temperatures started to drop and Bozeman saw its first dump of snow. “I’m not getting much sleep.”
Nearly every homeless person or urban camper interviewed told MTFP that the center is the scene of frequent verbal and physical fights, but most acknowledged that it’s the only shelter available to them.
“People are getting beat to shit in the Warming Center,” said Dawn Campbell, who works at a Super 8 hotel, has been homeless for 14 years and has witnessed a number of fights. “But I think that the Warming Center really helps people out.”
Guyer denied those characterizations.
“Behavior maintenance isn’t a huge issue for us,” he said. “Calling this ‘chaotic’ would be a gross misrepresentation of what’s happening here.”
Some of the incidents are par for the course at homeless shelters, especially as an emergency shelter that doesn’t require guests to be sober in a county with large gaps in mental health services, Guyer said.
“All of this adds up to situations that may seem chaotic, but our staff is trained in crisis de-escalation and addressing tensions before a crisis occurs,” Guyer added in an email. “Unfortunately, there are times when we have to ask someone to leave due to their behavior and inability to follow our behavior agreement, which is reviewed and signed by every guest.”
During Acker’s time at the shelter from 2014 to 2019, he said, he saw both aggressive and violent behavior.
“If someone says they feel unsafe, that’s the reality,” Acker said. “We could have a perfectly peaceful shelter, and, if a quarter of the people say they feel unsafe, you can’t ignore that.”
That said, many of the homeless people using the shelter believe that the center staff are doing the best they can.
“I’m just happy to have a place to sleep,” said 43-year-old Nick Faulkner, who came to Bozeman last spring and has stayed at the center almost every night since. “[Staff] can only do so much.”
CALLS TO POLICE
From Jan. 3, 2021, to Oct. 9, 2022, there were 842 calls to 911 from the center — more than one a day, according to city call logs reviewed by MTFP.
“We’ve seen an increase in calls over there because we’ve seen an increase of people utilizing the center,” Police Capt. Swanson said.
Not all of the calls, however, were for violence or arguments. Many were for medical issues. But because of how the calls are logged, it’s difficult to glean what happened in each incident, Swanson said.
What can be known is that during that same time, there were 64 calls to the center’s address related to incidents including sexual crimes, assault, possession of weapons, criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct that were substantial enough for city police to open a case.
“You take addiction issues, you take mental health issues, take the stress of living on the streets … and you have a very tense environment,” Acker said. “I’m not saying that excuses certain behavior.”
Numerous other calls were reported but often resulted in warnings with no formal case being filed, according to city records.
“The cops ought to just park their cars here,” said Christie Banderob, a long-time Warming Center guest who now lives in a tiny home village next to the center. “Same thing with the ambulance.”
‘THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MY SAFE ZONE’
Some issues from the Warming Center also spill over into the HRDC-run tiny homes — 150-to-300-square-foot homes with a kitchenette and a bathroom where tenants are required to pay 30% of their income toward rent — directly next to the center, Banderob said.
After decades of homelessness, Banderob finally got a roof over her head when she was placed in one of the HRDC-controlled homes. But the relief didn’t last long for the 59-year-old disabled single woman.
Banderob was falling asleep in her home in late October when a man started banging on her door. When Banderob cracked the door to see what the commotion was about, he pushed his way in and choked, beat and sexually assaulted her, according to charging documents filed against the accused assailant and what Banderob told MTFP.
It only stopped when Banderob managed to get her foot in the cracked door and open it enough to yell for help, she said. The police came and arrested the man, but she had already suffered a broken finger, four broken ribs, and a forehead gash that required six stitches. The assailant, Banderob told MTFP, smeared butter and sprayed Lysol in her hair.
When officers entered her home, they found butter all over the kitchen floor, blood in the entryway — which remains on her carpet today — and Banderob sitting on her bed, struggling to breathe with blood on her head and face, according to charging documents.
From her hospital bed on the night of the incident, Banderob told officers she thought the man was going to kill her.
“This was supposed to be my safe zone. I’m 100 pounds soaking wet,” she told MTFP.
Banderob said she no longer feels safe in her home and believes the incident was preventable because, according to the affidavit, the assailant was loudly going from door to door before he reached her.
“I like having a roof over my head, but all of the time I was homeless I never had any of this shit happen,” she said.
The accused assailant, William Perez, has been charged with two felony counts of aggravated burglary and pleaded not guilty. He is being held in the Gallatin County jail on $100,000 bail.
HRDC’s Guyer told MTFP that following the assault additional cameras were installed by the tiny homes and patrols by center staff were increased.
Guyer also said that at community meetings an increased police presence at the village has been brought up, but it’s something that residents have rebuffed. Banderob, however, said she’s been asking for more security for months.
Guyer added that security issues are “to be expected.”
“This is absolutely part and parcel with offering up this kind of housing approach,” he said. “You’re going to have security issues.”
The housing approach Guyer referenced is a “housing first” model that aims to alleviate chronic homelessness and is based on the idea that once people have stable housing they can then obtain mental health and addiction services.
Now, Banderob is talking about finding somewhere new to live because she struggles to stay in the space where she was brutally assaulted.
“I don’t want to live here anymore,” she said. “There’s fights all the time. They can’t control it.”
There are plans for a new Warming Center on Griffin Drive, which Guyer says will mitigate some of the issues that exist at the current facility.
The new center will have more space, family rooms for people with children, and walls — as opposed to curtains — to separate the men and the women.
Construction of the new shelter will not start until HRDC hits its fundraising goal of $15 million, said Johnson, the agency’s communications manager. So far, HRDC has raised roughly $11.5 million in two years, Johnson added in mid-November. HRDC had a goal of opening the new center by the end of 2023, but it’s unclear if that will pan out.
The Griffin Drive location will also include the Fork and Spoon (a pay-what-you-can restaurant) and other services offered by HRDC.
Bozeman is also home to Family Promise, a nonprofit that, according to its website, can shelter up to about 18 families at a time at various locations, but requires guests to keep a job or be in school and has a zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs, among other requirements that make it inaccessible for some homeless people or urban campers.
Following large donations, Family Promise’s annual budget increased from roughly $400,000 to $2.2 million from 2019 to 2022, said Christel Chvilicek, executive director of the local organization. That cash spurred a 600% increase in families served, uncovering a large swath of Bozeman’s homeless population that wasn’t being helped. Still, the facility has an average of 30 families on the waiting list at all times, Chvilicek estimated.
In addition, seven more tiny homes are under construction in the village behind the current Warming Center, an expansion that makes Banderob more nervous about living in the community.
“This place is a disaster,” she said. “But I don’t want this place taken away from anybody. We need it.”
“Where else is anybody gonna go?”
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