Spring is approaching, which means some warming shelters will shut down for the summer. It is a change for those communities and those living unhoused because Montana weather is still unpredictable.

We have seen some heightened rhetoric about people living unhoused. And even though it isn’t new, it is always hard to hear. It shows a lack of understanding of what is happening in our communities and a lack of compassion for our friends and neighbors trying to survive – especially in the winter. We know that most of the unhoused in Montana – are Montanans. Some were born here, and most of the others have lived here for at least five years.

Nearly every community in Montana has seen an increased need for emergency shelter and other services over the past three years. The rise is due to low vacancy rates, high rent, chronic health conditions, and barriers to accessing mental health or substance use disorder services.

We also know another wave is coming as the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance program ends and more people lose their housing. National data shows that a $100 increase in median rent is associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate. This is what we see and feel every day.

We want to be clear that no one type of person is homeless. People live in their cars, foster kids age out of the system, families flee domestic violence, people lose their apartments to new development and increasing rents, and many, including a disproportionate number of military veterans, have a mental illness or substance use disorder.

This year, to help our neighbors, Montana should use a small portion of the huge state budget surplus to help the shelters across Montana do more than keep people safe, fed, and warm.

House Bill 380 will create a grant program for shelters to provide mental health and substance use programs, support to keep families together, or help aging folks who are unhoused or may lose their housing. This funding will help us deliver the support people need to move out of crisis and on their way to stability.

Organizations like ours provide a range of support for our guests. We navigate systems to access birth certificates and other documents and help with job applications, health care forms, and housing applications. We provide case management, mental health and substance use counseling, family support, veterans services, and medical respite. We connect people with family to rebuild support systems. We also provide the basics many take for granted, like access to showers, clothes, laundry, and hygiene products.

Montana is a better place for everyone when people have a safe and affordable place to live. The efforts of shelters across the state are working, but complicated problems like homelessness take sustained, collaborative effort and resources to address.

We are incredibly grateful to the thousands of staff, volunteers, and donors who keep people safe, warm, and fed while connecting guests to the services they need to get health care, housing, and other support as they get back on their feet.

To keep Montana the place we love, we need to work together. Please join us. If you don’t know much about your local shelter, learn more. There are countless opportunities to volunteer or donate. We also encourage you to contact your legislator at 406-444-4800 and ask them to support HB 380.

Chris Krager, Samaritan House, Kalispell; Heather Grenier, HRDC, Inc. serving Gallatin, Park, and Meagher Counties; Oksana Zakharchenko, Montana Rescue Mission, Billings; Jill Bonny, Poverello Center, Missoula; and Carrie Matter, Great Falls Rescue Mission.