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Housing, food, and health care are basic needs for everyone, and many people are in urgent need of all three.
The pandemic and ensuing economic pressures, such as high inflation and ever-rising costs of housing, have made it challenging to pay rent or buy groceries. In Helena, freezing temperatures are already making it imperative that everyone have a place to live and stay warm.
“The Native community has been especially hit hard,” said Lisa Esquivel, a patient advocate and benefits coordinator at the Helena Indian Alliance.
Fortunately, the local organization can help.
“The Helena Indian Alliance exists to advocate for and to responsibly serve the mental, physical, spiritual, and social welfare of the Native American population and the Helena community,” according to its website.
Services are provided at the Leo Pocha Memorial Clinic, a federally qualified health center. They include primary health care, diabetes care, immunizations, screenings, and nutrition counseling.
Esquivel was hired at the beginning of 2022 to help clients sign up for Medicaid, but she soon found that she could help with other needs.
“When I started here in January, I was having a big problem with people walking in and asking for food,” she said. “We had no food to give them. There was a big need for food because it was a choice between gas and food.”
Esquivel figured out a way to run food drives.
“I started calling stores,” she said. “‘Can I have a food drive in front of your store?’ ‘Absolutely.’ I started stocking a pantry.”
With cold weather here, it’s no longer feasible to sit in front of stores to ask for donations, so Esquivel started a cash donation box.
“I collected cash for food, for gas cards, leaving some to stock during the winter,” she said.
As for housing, Esquivel helps people apply for aid from the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance program, which “supports Montanans who have experienced financial hardships directly, indirectly or during the COVID-19 pandemic and are at risk of housing instability,” according to the Montana Housing website. The program pays as much as $2200 a month to house people, including in hotels.
“I call, fill out their end of the application, make sure a hotel can take them,” Esquivel said. “The hotel fills out their end, and it’s expedited, and they’re in a hotel within 24 hours — at most 48.”
The Helena Indian Alliance was formed to serve the area’s Native community, though it’s open to everyone in the area.
“We’re here to help the whole community, but I focus all my programs on our Native community,” Esquivel said. “The need is out there, but they don’t know where to reach for the help. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, focus on the community, let them know we’re here to help them. The reservations now, people there know to ask for me. I’ll have nobody scheduled, and then five people are waiting for me.”
The goal is to see people eventually stand on their own and no longer need services. Each client has to make and keep commitments, such as coming to appointments or applying for jobs, Esquivel said.
“I would hope to see that the people we are placing in homes, who are in lack of food and gas and shelter, that we can work with them to ensure they have a stronger foundation in their future, where they’re able to work and provide for their families,” she said.