A Need For Refuge
Enduring Bozeman winter conditions without a home can be miserable and dangerous. The Greater Gallatin Homeless Action Coalition (GGHAC) and Bozeman’s Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) aimed to fix this problem with the Warming Center.
The Warming Center was created in response to a tragic incident in 2007, when a local man sought shelter from the cold in an unlocked U-Haul. Sadly, he froze to death. The incident rippled through the community calling for action to protect the homeless from the hardships of winter.
Open seasonally, from November to March, the Warming Center provides roughly 50 beds for its patrons. There are a few rooms available for families and women. There are a total of 33 of the 50 beds for men, and this ratio is representative of the homeless population, as most homeless people are male. The doors open at 7 p.m. each night, and people may stay until 7 a.m.
The GGHAC, is a 501(c)3 non-profit Community Action Agency with the goal of building a better community through innovation and leadership. Based off of this mission, the Warming Center was established in 2010, as part of the Housing First Program, in response to an immediate need in the Gallatin Valley for a ‘warm place’ for individuals to seek shelter.
According to the HRDC website, in the past year over 200 individuals were provided 5,891 shelter stays: 63 percent of participants were experiencing a disabling condition, 13 percent were veterans, four percent were aged 55 years and older, 20 percent were female and three families with children under the age of 18 stayed at the shelter.
The Warming Center uses a low barrier model, meaning that they recognize the population they serve. Tonya Horn, the outreach and operations manager, explained the intent to have guests “Come as you are.” About 80 percent of the patrons have had significant trauma. With the selected model, the Warming Center is holistically helping the community, as they don’t turn services away to those with drug addictions, mental disorders or criminal backgrounds, as seen with other homeless shelters.
Horn dedicates her time to the Warming Center as a social worker with experience in mental health. She said, “Beyond that, I have a distinct memory of the first homeless person I saw. It really made an impression on me and I am not okay with people being homeless. I think that people deserve a warm and safe place at night.”
The Warming Center is completely funded by the community. Their water is donated by Culligan and their food is primarily donated by the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. Horn said, “We go out into the community and say what our needs are and generally get a response … There is something about homelessness that touches most people’s hearts.” For example, this November only 25 percent of the budget was raised, until news stations in the area spread word of the predicament and the money flooded in. Now, they can stay open until March, as planned.
Horn explained how the success of the Warming Center is not just about funding, but awareness. She spoke at a Brown Bag Lunch at MSU about the shelter and commonly speaks at churches. HRDC also has a development team that works to spread awareness within the community.
The Warming Center has many guests, functioning at capacity almost every night. Horn said the area where Warming Center falls short is with land for a bigger facility “We have no where to put a shelter, we have donors, but need land to put it on,” she explained.
The Warming Center may expand or open it’s doors for a longer period during the year, but this needs to be done purposefully. Horn said, “We really have to do strategic planning to find out what the need is and what services are needed to help these folks move forward.”
Verna, a guest at the shelter, was a former truck driver and now faces disabilities due to being diagnosed with type two diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a crushed spine from a work incident. She has been a guest since Nov. 2 and said, “I’m fighting in every aspect just to do what I do. I would have nothing without the Warming Center.”
Guests are Family
The Warming Center prides itself on their strength of relationships with guests. The guests also have a great deal of camaraderie. Verna said, “We get to be a big family here. A lot of us have considered us family.” The evidence was seen with fellow guests helping Verna navigate her wheelchair.
Dean Hall, a volunteer at the Warming Shelter in his third season, gave testament to the shelter’s importance to veterans, with 18 veterans coming in this year. He said, “I was a guest previously, for my first 30 days in Bozeman I stayed here.”
Hall’s wife, Sharon Lacey Hall, whom he met at the Warming Center volunteering, is in her second season of volunteering. She said that the Warming Center is important as a, “warm place to go that’s clean and has volunteers that care about them … If they are willing to forgo the alcohol or drugs while they are here, I will do anything for them.” Hall continued, “it is really easy to judge our guests, but we just can’t. It doesn’t just make my heart feel better [to volunteer], but also theirs to have people and volunteers who care.”
Another guest at the shelter agreed with the commitment of volunteers. She said, “The volunteers will step up. It’s impressive.”
The Warming Center is a safe environment. Lacey Hall said that she, “has always been treated with dignity and respect.” She added, “I have never felt unsafe here. I tell my husband that I feel safer here than anywhere. You see a great human side that isn’t seen in other communities. [Volunteering here] will change your image of homelessness. It’s not always the person holding the sign on the corner who is homeless.”
The homeless community is grateful for the Warming Center, but still faces many obstacles in Bozeman. Verna said, “having a 24-hour shelter would be amazing. Each year there is a bigger need and now that people are starting to travel, more people are showing up here.”
Verna visits the Bozeman Public Library for shelter during the day and struggles getting around the city. She has e-mailed the city commissioner about getting around on ice and snow in her wheelchair. This negligence to comply with ADA laws is ruining her wheelchair by bending her wheels, and she cannot afford to buy another chair if the ice and snow ultimately ruin it.
She also spoke of the need for a seasonal shelter. She said that when the Warming Center is closed, her options for shelter are very limited, “A lot of the motels won’t even rent to you if you’re homeless, so we don’t even have that opportunity. We can stay in tents under bridges. I am incapable of staying at most campsites because of my chair.”
Although Verna’s story is a testament to the city’s need to do more for the homeless community, this population segment is overly grateful for the tireless efforts made by the volunteers, staff and the Bozeman community. Without the Warming Center, many would find their lives at risk during long, frigid winter nights.