Outreach efforts expanding for homelessness, addressing issues at downtown church

Tension among downtown residents, businesses and church communities has continued over the First United Methodist Church on the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 6th Street allowing homeless people to congregate and sleep on their property.

The issue has been ongoing for months, becoming a regular topic at City Commission and other downtown meetings.

City officials have been working to address safety and code issues while also working with local nonprofit and healthcare agencies to address underlying issues of homelessness such as addiction and mental health.

On March 25, the Great Falls Police Department, Alluvion Health and United Way of Cascade County representatives went to the FUMC property to speak to the people there and ask them what services they need in attempt to connect them with the appropriate services.

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During their outreach, the group found a mix in terms of how many were either using or willing to use services such as medical, behavioral and addiction services. The common barriers to getting services for the group of about a dozen that the outreach team talked to on Friday were transportation and lack of identification.

There was a common thread of addiction and mental health issues among the group and many had housing but use the church property as a gathering space to meet with their friends.

Marvin, one of the men who frequents the church area, said he and some of the others have housing, but the church is their social space and that whether everyone gets along often depends on how much they’re drinking.

Marvin said that he volunteers at the church and other places and has cut back on drug and alcohol use because it affects his mind and his schedule. He said that he also serves as an ambassador to the homeless and peacemaker in that he knows most of the people and can stay calm in situations so helps to get information to people and diffuse situations that may arise.

Capt. John Schaffer of the GFPD said that the department is finalizing new plans to deal with those on the property who are committing crimes but also to address the underlying issues of addiction and mental health when possible. He said they’re also working on a public education campaign so the public understands how to report crime incidents when they happen and what’s required to issue citations.

For example, he said that they’ve had a number of incidents in which no one would speak to officers as a witness, and one incident in which a person took video of an assault and posted it to social media rather than reporting it to police.

Without seeing a crime being committed, having evidence or witness testimony, GFPD can’t cite anyone, he said.

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Schaffer said the goal of Friday’s outreach, which is an effort they intend to continue, was to get an idea of the people who are using the space.

“We have all these resources around them so let’s see what they need and whether they’re willing to accept it,” he said. “We can’t cite our way out of this.”

The questions asked ranged from housing, access to services, transportation, addiction, and more. The outreach team spent about an hour and a half chatting with the dozen or so people on the church property on Friday afternoon.

Among those on the outreach team was Michael Robertson, the new mental health coordinator working out of the GFPD and with Alluvion. He works with the GFPD health officer and they respond to mental health calls and do welfare checks and home visits on those they have certain interactions with in an effort to connect people with services and prevent crisis situations. They also work with the mental health court program at the Municipal Court.

Schaffer said the department is hoping to get a grant to support those positions.

Pastor Jeff Wakeley of FUMC has said repeatedly that it’s his Christian mission to serve the homeless and provide them a place to sleep, but others in the area have said that many congregating on the property are not homeless but instead are gathering to drink and do drugs. He has said that he was working to have rules for being on the property to include no drugs or alcohol, but law enforcement said that hasn’t been the case.

Schaffer said that on March 23, GFPD issued 12 citations at the church property or within a block of it, all to repeat offenders, for alcohol or drug related offenses and trespassing. Nine of those citations were open container violations, according to the downtown officer.

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The situation at FUMC has heightened community awareness of homelessness as its made the issue more visible, but those who work with homeless populations and provide services say that the number of homeless people in town hasn’t increased significantly.

Gary Owen, president of the United Way of Cascade County, said that their agency coordinates the local Continuum of Care, which is a group of local service providers, law enforcement, public officials and others who work together to address the needs of the homeless.

The group also helps conduct the annual “point in time” counts, which are federally managed homelessness counts conducted in January.

COVID changed the process and the counts didn’t include outreach to those living on the street or in camps, and only counted those who were sheltered, but Owen said the data indicates that homelessness has been fairly stable in Cascade County.

The Continuum of Care was locally established in 1997 and revamped around 2017, Owen said.

“Ending homelessness is impossible,” Owen said. “But the goal is to make it rare, brief and non-recurring. We work together and want to be as effective as we can be.”

Addressing homelessness is complex, he said, and some simply do not want services or housing.

Owen said that you can’t just house the chronically homeless and expect them to succeed, it has to be coupled with services.

Homelessness has been an issue in Great Falls for years, but has become more visible as people have congregated at the church over the last year.

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“We just don’t know who a lot of these people are, who’s homeless and who’s not,” Owen said and the outreach to those individuals has been the biggest gap in the local system.

But, there are groups and individuals who have been doing that work, he said, and have relationships with the homeless. It takes building trust to gather the information and help connect them with resources, he said.

The Continuum group meets every other week and does case management on people they have on what they call the ‘by name’ list of those the group has done formal assessment for and tracks their progress.

Owen said they have about 40 households, or 60 individuals, on that list, and that once they’re in housing with services, they tend to move toward permanent housing.

People living at the Rescue Mission aren’t currently in that database, but Owen said they’re working to integrate those systems though they’ve had some software glitches and technical issues.

Owen said that there are lots of groups and individuals in town who want to help and give food or sleeping bag or coats, but haven’t been willing to help with the assessments and outreach.

“That immediate need is never going to go away if we don’t get them the services they need,” Owen said.

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The amount of housing available is also a barrier to addressing homelessness in the community. Housing has always been tight in Great Falls and with out of town investment companies buying up rental properties and raising rents, it’s compounding the problem, Owen said.

There’s also little available under the Section 8 program that meets the requirements and rent levels required.

The federal rules that control those rules need to be adjusted, he said, and the Continuum group has been advocating for that as well as working with the Great Falls Housing Authority.

Owen said that much fo the money available in the state for permanent housing goes to communities other than Great Falls because the local housing authority hasn’t prioritized housing the homeless. There’s typically a waiting list at the local housing authority.

Carrie Matter of the Great Falls Rescue Mission said that their capacity is about 300 between their three shelter facilities.

They typically have 75-80 per night at the men’s shelter including residential and cold weather services, with a capacity for 84.

The shelter will take anyone in for cold weather housing when the temperature drops below freezing, so long as they aren’t a danger to themselves or others.

Matter said that they have some who simply won’t come inside even for cold weather services.

Some just want to be out on the street, she said.

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“How do you try to address people out on the street while respecting their rights and the law in such a way to help us truly help them,” she said. “Sometimes we want to get them into behavioral health programs at the hospital but we can’t force people to do that. We have to honor their rights. There’s definitely a gap and it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a long time.”

She said there are a number of groups in town that do their best to work together to meet needs but there are challenges.

“We don’t want anyone out on the streets to die, we want to make sure they are given the chance and the opportunity,” Matter said. “Every person is so unique. Everybody’s needs are so different.”

She said that agencies are working together to serve the needs of the homeless and that even if they disagree on the approach, “it’s about the person that we’re working with.”

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Matter said that of those housed at the Mission, about 70 percent were working and homelessness is often more complex than just the need for a job.

She said that the Continuum group and cooperation among local agencies has allowed for the sharing of resources and working together to connect people with those resources.

“There’s so much available and so many people are willing to help. I think we’re getting better as a community,” she said. “We’re constantly having to adjust and adapt to situations and current issues.”

She said that the public perception is often that of a someone out of work, or the panhandler or the drunk, but that’s not necessarily the case.

It could be someone running for their life who was almost killed by their boyfriend, or abandoned by their family, she said.

“Homelessness is multifaceted and complex. Our community is very unique, we’re going to help each other out,” Matter said. “We would love to be out of a job. We’d love to not have to be there, I just don’t think that’s the case. I think we have the privilege of doing that, people invite us into their lives at a time of crisis. It helps to see them as a person, there’s a story to each person.”

The Mission is a Christian organization and they have guidelines for their recovery program, but Matter said they’re transparent about those rules with anyone who comes to them. She said they also do drug screening during intake but will allow anyone for cold weather services unless they’re trespassed, belligerent or a danger to others.

Based on a nationwide survey of rescue missions, Matter said more than half are self-referred to the mission.

Some may be resistant to seek services.

“No one wants to admit failure, no one ever wants to say I have to rely on someone else,” Matter said. “It takes a great deal of courage to come and ask for help.”