Encampment removed from downtown church

The tent encampment at the downtown First United Methodist Church was removed by Aug. 1.

Pastor Dawn Skerritt said during the Aug. 2 City Commission meeting that they were still cleaning up, but there had been no incidents while they shut down the encampment. The Great Falls Police Department had officers on site during the tear down to ensure safety and security.

Skerritt said they didn’t know where those living there had gone.

During the meeting, City Manager Greg Doyon said that “there has always been a homeless presence in this community.”

The FUMC encampment was visible, but there have been and are others throughout the community.

Doyon asked representatives from multiple local agencies to provide information on homeless services during his report to commissioners at the Aug. 2 meeting.

Gary Owen, United Way of Cascade County president, said that many of those experiencing homelessness need more services attached to housing to be successful.

“We don’t have all the resources we need,” he said.

Owen said that they are part of the Continuum of Care, a group of about 30 community organizations that work together to house people and connect them with a variety of services.

He said they need to do more outreach to the homeless population to connect them with those services, but there are some who don’t want to be in the system.

The group uses a case management database of those who seek help and have been assessed and they track them through their progress of finding housing and using services.

Deb Kotel of St. Vincent de Paul said they provide shelter for homeless veterans at the Grace Home and other services to the homeless at the Angel Room.

At the Angel Room, they provide hygiene services and foot care since many of the homeless can be a strain on local emergency services for medical care. They also connect people with resources, she said.

“There is not enough housing,” she said.

Kotel said she is working with six fully employed men who can’t find housing. She said that out of town companies that have bought up properties that previously allowed Section 8 vouchers is limiting their ability to place people in housing.

She said that some of those who had been at FUMC had shelter, but chose to stay there for the social aspects.

About a third of those at the encampment are back on the street, Kotel said, which she estimated to be about 20 people.

Karla Seaman is the director of Opportunities Inc. and said they provide services to the homeless, low income and vulnerable populations.

From Jan. 1 through May 31, she said they assisted 162 households who were unsheltered.

Unsheltered can mean living in a car, park, campground, on the street or other scenarios.

Of those, they were able to get 135 of those info some kind of housing within a few weeks.

There are 27 households that Seaman said are among those living on the street, that for various reasons couldn’t get into housing. Her organization put some of them into hotels. She said that there are about five hotels in town that will work with them for temporary shelter options.

Of those 27, she said 15 eventually went into housing and are still housed.

Six of those continued to live on the street but receive active case management. One is in jail but getting case management. Two went into the Cameron Family Center. One abandoned their hotel room and they have lost contact with, she said. Two returned to the street and refused services.

Seaman said they screen people for eligibility and housing needs. It requires a partnership with the individuals involved, she said.

That’s the goal, she said, to find longterm solutions, not a bandaid.

Seaman asked case managers to ask their clients if anyone would write a letter about their experiences they were willing to share with the community and she read a portion of one those letters.

The writer mentioned receiving services through Opportunities Inc., Sober Life, Family Promise, St. Vincent de Paul, Gateway, Emily Center, food banks, Section 8 and Medicaid, among others.

Seaman said it demonstrates all of the people and agencies that work to support people in the community who are experiencing homelessness.

Gina Black, an outreach coordinator at Opportunities Inc., has been working with those at the FUMC encampment since last fall.

She said a number of them said they had somewhere to go and quite a few started but didn’t follow through with the case management or housing navigation services.

Black said they have helped with getting identification, Social Security numbers and connecting people with services.

Doyon said he provided Black’s contact info the FUMC leadership to share with those leaving the encampment or using their other homeless outreach services.