HELENA – Homelessness is in issue that impacts communities across the country, and Helena is not an exception.

The United Way of Lewis and Clark area organized a conversation Thursday aimed at finding long term solutions to homelessness.

City leaders, including Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen and Helena City Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen attended along with community members and business owners to try and brainstorm ideas that will make a real impact.

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During round table discussions, several people mentioned the prevalence of drug use amongst the homeless population as well as an increase in crime in the downtown area. With God’s Love, a shelter located on Last Chance Gulch, some business owners said they have seen homeless individuals sleeping near storefront doors, which have caused problems in the past.

“So one of the things that was mentioned during this meeting was education of business owners on how to react and how to positively work with the homeless population so if a homeless person comes into your business [you know] some of the words to help mitigate the problem so it won’t become violent and so you’re not targeted,” said CEO of United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area Alison Munson. “We can put together an education session on how to work with the homeless population instead of just being frustrated with it.”

Munson added that these conversations allow community members to take an active role in finding a solution.

“Where can you take part? Can you help change policy so people don’t end up homeless? What can we do, what is your expertise, what can you bring to the table.” Munson said.

She also said the each homeless individual costs the community an estimated $36,000 per year, after factoring in ambulance rides, emergency room visits and time spent in jail. But, it costs the community $8,000 to get that individual into housing; Munson believes it will benefit everyone to find a solution.

“These are folks that are being taken by ambulance every day so these costs are real and they continue to escalate,” said Munson.

The discussion also reminded attendees of ‘housing first front doors’, which is a coordinated entry system that aims to connect individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to housing and other resources. The organizations in Helena that are a part of the system are:

  • Good Samaritan Ministries, 3067 N. Montana Avenue
  • PureView/Healthcare for the Homeless, 533 N. Last Chance Gulch
  • PureView Health Center, 1930 9th Avenue
  • Volunteers of America, 3530 Centennial Drive, Ste. 1
  • The Salvation Army Homeless Outreach Team, 1905 Henderson
  • 2-1-1, dial this number from any phone and request front door connections for Helena

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts the annual Point-in-Time homeless survey and the United Way is looking for volunteers to help collect data for the Helena area. The survey helps service providers better understand the number of people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness in the community.

This year, the survey is Jan. 25 through Jan. 31; to learn how you can volunteer, click here.

The United Way is working with other community organizations to develop an action plan to end homelessness. She encourages anyone interested to get involved by attending a coalition meeting. The Helena Resource Advocate leadership team (HRA) is a coalition comprised of various community stakeholders who meet the first Monday of every month from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the United Way in Helena and the HRA general meeting takes place every second Tuesday of the month from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Helena Indian Alliance.