Author: Rob Rogers, Billings Gazette

Larry Mayer Photos 

The first call for rides went out at 6:30 a.m., and a handful of residents scrambled from their rooms at the Off The Streets shelter to take the shuttle to the Community Crisis Center.

The shuttle later returned and took others to the St. Vincent DePaul offices where many of them got breakfast. By then, the temperature had risen a couple degrees to 3 below zero.

“When it’s cold out like this it feels good to serve a large number,” said Craig Barthel, the shelter’s director.

The work that Barthel, the Community Crisis Center, the Montana Rescue Mission and others perform to assist Billings’ transient and homeless population intensifies exponentially when temperatures drop below zero.
Off The Streets opened in November as a low-barrier shelter with the express purpose of keeping the most vulnerable members of Billings’ transient and homeless population alive during the coldest nights of winter.
With lows earlier in the week forecast to hit 21 and 26 below zero on Thursday and Friday nights, it appears those nights have arrived. Already this week, overnight lows have been in the negatives and Barthel has seen a corresponding increase in the number of people looking for shelter.

In January the shelter was averaging around 30 residents a night, he said. On Monday night Barthel had 46 rooms occupied and on Tuesday night the number increased to 50. Off The Streets used to be the Western Inn Motel and with its conversion into a low-barrier shelter it can comfortably house 74 people.

Down on Minnesota Avenue, the Montana Rescue Mission has switched to its cold weather procedures.

“We’re taking everyone that comes to our door,” said Matt Lundgren, MRM’s executive director. “We’ve got plenty of space, plenty of warm food, plenty of warm beds.”

The shelters are working to get the message out that they’re open and have plenty of room; Billings has always had small pockets of transients who resist seeking out those services.

Barthel has seen a few of them show up in the last few days. He said 16 of the those who usually turn him down checked in for the night on Monday. He expects to see more by the end of the week.

Off The Streets was created by the Yellowstone County Continuum of Care coalition and operates as a “last resort” shelter for those who are homeless and can’t be served immediately by other Billings shelters, like MRM and the Crisis Center.

The Crisis Center serves those in immediate need — whether it’s an issue with mental health or intoxication — and gives them a place for 24 hours. While there, those using the center are required to meet with a counselor and are given the option of connecting with a case worker with whom they would regularly meet after they leave.

The Montana Rescue Mission uses a faith-based approach to serve those experiencing homelessness or transience. The MRM provides long-term shelter along with work and self-improvement programs. It also has a meal program for those living on the street.

MRM is currently working to raise funds to match $6 million in federal aid it’s received to build affordable housing downtown and completely overhaul its campus on Minnesota Avenue.

The Crisis Center works closely with Off The Streets — to stay at Off The Streets, those seeking shelter have to check in at the Crisis Center first. If they qualify for services at MRM and there’s room available, those seeking shelter at Off The Streets are sent to the Mission first.

Those who do end up at Off The Streets are given a room until 7 a.m. With the room comes a pair of clean pajamas and a big blue bin in which they place the clothes they’re wearing. Those clothes are laundered overnight and returned to their rooms in the morning, and the pajamas they’ve worn are then turned in.

The shelter has on-duty overnight staff and security, and rooms are cleaned and sanitized between use. During the day, guests are connected to community services at other locations.

This week because of the extreme cold, First Christian Church downtown has opened its doors from 2 to 6 p.m. so that those with no where to go can sit somewhere warm.

The Salvation Army has helped provide meals to the shelter and St. Vincent DePaul gives out breakfast. Every Wednesday, the Crisis Center sends case workers to Off The Streets to meet with those staying there.

For Barthel it’s a remarkable testament to what the Billings community can do when it comes together. He’s grateful to be a part of it.

“It’s an honor,” he said.

Lundgren agrees.

“We’re happy to serve the community,” he said.