Good Samaritan Ministries is working to convert the building at 648 N. Jackson St., in Helena into an emergency shelter for homeless women. Credit: JoVonne Wagner

A Helena nonprofit is taking steps to renovate a local building into an emergency shelter for homeless women.

Good Samaritan Ministries is leading the effort. During an Emergency Housing Working Group meeting earlier this month, the nonprofit said it would seek a conditional use permit from the city to remodel the building at 648 N. Jackson St., as a pilot project to address the need for a low-barrier women’s shelter during the winter.

Other resources and shelters in Helena have certain criteria before services are provided, such as having children or a history of domestic violence, keeping some of the city’s homeless out on the street. 

There are an estimated 40 to 50 unsheltered women in the community, according to Mark Nay, the street outreach coordinator for Good Samaritan Ministries.

The original plan was for the location to be an overflow shelter for God’s Love, a nonprofit homeless shelter in town that focuses on providing financial assistance to low-income and homeless people, specifically veterans and single mothers, according to its website.

That idea raised issues for Good Samaritan Ministries executive director Theresa Ortega, who attended the meeting on Nov. 16 at the City-County Building.

“Our role is to provide education, recovery, and resources … to get them to a point where they can get on the waiting list to one of these places, but be in a safe place while they’re waiting,” Ortega said during the meeting. “So that’s why we came back around and looked at this. I honestly think it would have been another Band-Aid, just passing people back and forth.”

An estimated $100,000 is needed for the renovations, as well as for security and staffing, according to a draft budget that was discussed during the meeting. 

Good Samaritan Ministries plans to ask the city to access money that the city commission set aside earlier this year specifically to fund solutions for homeless people in the city. The shelter will tentatively be called Ruth’s Place. 

“We want to call it Ruth’s Place and Ruth was a biblical woman who went through adversities and what she went through is very much related to this day and age,” Ortega said.

City Commissioner Melinda Reed proposed putting aside $100,000 from the city’s America Rescue Plan Act funds last August, after hearing from a longtime unsheltered person in Helena.

“It seemed like the time was right to set aside some funding because what we so often find is that people will say, ‘We have a need and we have an idea and what we don’t have is funding,’” Reed said. “And so I thought this time, if we could actually say, ‘Okay. Now, there’s funding. So bring us your ideas.’ We might actually get somewhere in addressing this issue.”

Good Samaritan Ministries and United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area this week sent a letter to the Lewis and Clark County commissioners requesting startup funding of $4,600 per month over four months to support the pilot project. It’s unclear when the county commissioners will consider the request.

“This community has always been concerned about how will people survive in the winter when they’re homeless. This is the first time we’ve actually made this kind of progress toward a solution.”

Jeff Buscher 

“For over fifteen years an ongoing conversation has been held with many community nonprofits and stakeholders to eventually separate God’s Love into two shelters, one for women and one for men. The opportunity has come to make this a reality,” the letter to the commissioners said. 

The shelter would be located next to the current unsheltered resource program, Our Place, which is also managed by the Good Samaritan Ministries. The planned space for the shelter currently houses Simple Cremations Funeral Home, which plans to move to a new location yet to be determined, according to business owner Michael Stevenson.  

Jeff Buscher, director of community impact for United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, shared what this emergency shelter would mean for the city.

“This community has always been concerned about how will people survive in the winter when they’re homeless,” Buscher said. “This is the first time we’ve actually made this kind of progress toward a solution.”

Good Samaritan Ministries will hold an open house on Dec. 5, at Our Place for community members to learn more about the project, meet shelter neighbors, ask questions and address concerns. 

The city’s zoning commission will consider the conditional use permit for the shelter at its meeting on Dec. 6. The city commission is expected to hear the proposal for the shelter at its meeting on Dec. 18. If the shelter is approved, Buscher said the hope is that the shelter will open early next year. 

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JoVonne Wagner is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Northwestern Montana. She was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced and lived through all the amazing things about her home, but also witnessed all the negative aspects of rez life. Wagner is an alumni of NPR'S Next Generation Radio. JoVonne interned for Buffalo's Fire and she recently graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism.