Homelessness in Montana, what can we do to improve our state?
Homelessness in Montana is on the rise. In fact it's on the rise across America.
You may have recently seen that in Flathead County the Flathead County commissioners sent out a public letter to their citizens, saying "enough is enough."
I find the letter infuriating. It's almost like the County commissioners are throwing their hands up and saying "what do you want us to do, fix it?" Actually, yeah that's what you were elected for. You said it yourself in the letter, it's hard and there is no easy answer, but there are some things that have shown to work.
Homelessness is a housing problem. No other factor matters more to reducing homelessness in not only Montana, but America, than access to affordable housing. In Kalispell median housing prices nearly tripled during the pandemic. Only recently have they started to come back down to pre-pandemic prices. Plenty of those were rental properties that were sold, the rent increased, and we're supposed to act surprised that homelessness increased? With property tax increases you may even find yourself priced out of a house you already own, leading to more homeless in the area.
You may have heard that Utah reduced their homeless population by almost 90%. Well it's a bit more nuanced than that. By reclassifying what constituted being homeless they were able to tout that 90% reduction. In reality chronic homelessness was reduced by 71%. While not 90%, 71% is nothing to sneeze at. Officials realized there really is no end game to homelessness though, it's something you have to keep working at. You have to keep building on your successes.
Preston Cochrane, former executive director of Shelter the Homeless had this to say about keeping up with homelessness “In terms of preventing homelessness, it’s pretty straightforward,” Cochrane said. “It’s housing.”
The letter from the commissioners said "Many times, that spare change that you give to the homeless individual standing at the intersection is used for drugs and alcohol."
The old joke about that is "yeah, and I wasn't?"
You may say by offering services like giving syringes to users will only increase drug use and crime. Turns out that's not true. There is no difference in crime rates in places with Syringe Services Programs and those without. The benefits are there as well. In places with a SSPs it's helped reduce HIV and Hepatitis C by 50%. It reaches over two-thirds when you add in helping people with their opioid addiction through medication.
In places with SSPs users are 5 times more likely to enter into a treatment program and 3 times more likely to quit completely.
Cities with SSPs also help improve public safety with needle disposal locations, keeping used and discarded needles off the street.
There will always be someone who takes advantage or refuses these services, but we cannot let perfect be the enemy of good in situations like this. I said it at the beginning of the article, it seems the commissioners stance on this is "we've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas"
I reached out to one of the homeless shelters in Kalispell to ask about capacity, and I spoke with Billy Greel the Associate Director of the Samaritan House who said,
We've been here for over 20 years and have had an amazing success rate in that time. We aren't about to let something like this stop us now