By Christin Rzasa
Gary Locke officially retired from the Montana Job Service in Hamilton in 1999, but he’s never stopped working to improve the lives of Bitterroot residents in economic peril. Undaunted by the enormity of the problems of hunger and homelessness, he has spent the past twenty years since his retirement devising solutions and overcoming obstacles to help people achieve sustainable economic independence. His experience has culminated in the creation of a charitable non-profit organization, Family Shelter of the Bitterroot, and a grand vision: a state-of-the-art facility that will “provide food, shelter and opportunity to circumstantially homeless families.”
Locke was introduced to the issue of homelessness in the Bitterroot Valley when he began working with the Salvation Army in Hamilton. On just his second day of work, he met a woman whose husband had evicted her from their home after a fight. With no place to go, she and her twelve-year-old daughter were living in their ’85 Oldsmobile, and Locke didn’t have the funding (from the Salvation Army) to help her.
“They gave me $300 a month to work with,” Locke recalls. “I was working five hours a day, and I’m going to fix all the problems in the Bitterroot for $300? That amount would be gone the first day I walked in, and what am I going to do the rest of the month?” He approached the Ravalli County Ministerial Association with the idea of acting as a coordinator for their benevolence requests, in conjunction with his work for the Salvation Army, giving him more funds to work with. The churches were “very generous,” but Locke still wanted a better solution. Through the Ravalli Republic in January of 2010, he proposed a meeting for interested people to discuss creating a local homeless shelter. To Locke’s astonishment, sixty-five people showed up to that gathering.
“They didn’t show up for a meeting,” he says, “they showed up with buckets, scrub brushes, paint brushes…they were ready to start work. I was blown away.”
In just two months’ time, the group created an organization, formed a board of directors and found a facility that – with a lot of work and generously donated materials – they converted into The Lighthouse Family Shelter at the edge of Hamilton. That shelter ran from March 1, 2010, to September 29, 2011, and provided 5801 “people nights” (one person per night equals one “people night”). Unfortunately, the organization didn’t own the building, and its owner eventually “had a different picture of what he wanted to do with the place,” Locke explains, “so we moved out.” There were thirteen families in the Shelter at the time, and Locke and his board had to tell them they had to leave. “That was a HARD day.”
The Shelter was able to help those families find more permanent situations, but as Locke says, “Just because we didn’t have a shelter didn’t mean people were no longer homeless. My phone kept ringing. People were still in trouble.”
Locke emphasizes that his organization’s first priority is “to keep them home…I can’t help them for the long-term, but if they’re short on rent this month or if there’s a power bill” they can’t pay, he’ll help them make that. “But first they have to go to LIHEAP (energy assistance program offered by the Human Resource Council).”
“We get them all organized and going to the right places so there’s more [help] on board,” Locke says. “It’s called ‘a continuum of care’ – wherever you go in, we all know what everyone else does.” Since his organization is small, it can be flexible with its funds, like helping with utility payments or even car repair. “We try to short-circuit problems,” Locke explains, assisting clients while at the same time helping maintain their self-sufficiency.
Keeping clients in the home they have is especially important here in the Bitterroot because getting into a home is so difficult. Locke cites figures compiled by the Bitterroot Task Force on Homelessness and Housing that illustrate the shortage of affordable housing in the Bitterroot Valley, a dominant factor in the homelessness equation. “The average rentals [here] are $750. Any time you spend more than 30% of your income on housing, you’re going to be in trouble because there isn’t enough cushion for the rest of your life to continue…Multiply $750 times three. You need a monthly take-home income of $2250. How many jobs do you know that pay that [in the Bitterroot]?”
Besides the dilemma of homelessness, Locke has also become alarmed with the growing number of people he encounters who are going hungry. “We’ve got a problem here,” he notes. “One out of five kids in America has hunger issues. That’s a lot of kids.” He recalls one day in April of 2015 when he was called on three times to assist people who had run out of groceries and the money to buy them. Two were families with children who had exhausted their supply of food stamps and food bank assistance for the month. Locke helped them with gift certificates to a local grocery store. The third case involved a disabled veteran who’d just had a leg amputated.
“They dropped him off at the St. Mary’s Motel [in Stevensville] with a wheel chair and said, ‘Your disability check is in the mail.’ He’s stuck at the motel. He can SEE Super 1 [grocery store], but he has no money for groceries. He didn’t even know how to run that wheel chair!” Locke dropped off some food for the man and arranged assistance from a kind neighbor at the motel who agreed to look out for him. He also notified the local veteran’s organization. “There’s a hole here – a BIG hole. Sometimes it’s a lot more than just giving them some money.”
Locke’s resourcefulness at solving these problems comes from experience. In 2008, Locke assisted victims of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, feeding hot meals to 1500 people a day. People had no food or electricity, but once a day they could get a substantial meal to help carry them. “I tucked that in the back of my hat as a good way to help people get by,” Locke explains. The idea came back to him as a way of helping with the local hunger issue. In 2013, he again approached the Ministerial Association with the possibility of using kitchen facilities in churches around the valley to provide that one meal a day to as many hungry people as possible. The Cornerstone Bible Church in Hamilton offered their kitchen for use three nights a week. With twelve ministries supplying the food and volunteers, each church only had to be responsible for one night a month. A “kitchen coordinator” for Cornerstone would be on hand to open and close the facility and make sure the volunteers knew where everything was. Then the Assembly of God Church (also in Hamilton) offered to open its Wednesday night “soup kitchen” to provide another weeknight meal for those in need. Shortly after that, the Catholic Church in Hamilton joined in with their Friday night fish fry. On the first night of the Shelter’s “Community Meals” – in 2013 – one person showed up. Locke was a little disappointed, but it was merely a matter of getting the word out. Since that night until the end of January, 2019, the effort has served 43,462 meals, feeding anywhere from 75 to 120 people a night, five nights a week, and involving over 13,000 volunteer hours. Now that he has the kitchen teams in place, Locke plans to transfer the Community Meals to the Family Shelter facility when it’s built.
In drawing up the blueprint for the new shelter, Locke received assistance from local builder Randy Pigman to incorporate current energy conservation techniques. These design innovations will reduce operating costs for the facility, making more funds available for food, housing and client education. Locke is especially enthusiastic about the opportunities for education.
“There’s a lot of people who – throughout the years – have missed out on life-skills education,” Locke points out. “You learn a lot of these things the hard way, but … we can save them some of that pain ahead of time” by teaching people how to manage their spending to match their income. The building will have a common area that Locke says could be used for educational workshops on topics like finance management, nutrition, and gardening. He’d even like to be able to offer classes on basic auto and home repair.
The 9600 square-foot shelter will be able to accommodate up to fifteen families at a time, and there are also shower facilities on the main floor that will be open to “walk-ins” from off the street who just need a place to clean up. This shower/bathroom area is just inside the front door, adjacent to (and in full view of) the main reception area, to protect the privacy and security of the residents, who will have a separate shower/bathroom and sleeping area. The building’s plans call for a commercial kitchen and large dining room, not only for the shelter’s residents but for the weeknight Community Meals program. There’s also a nurse’s station, laundry facilities, a “smart station” with computers for residents’ use, and a printer in the main office for residents to print off necessary documents (resumes, for example). Locke has figured a five-member staff will be needed to run the Shelter, but undoubtedly it will also rely on volunteers.
While plans for the future shelter are well under way, Locke has also reached out to the homeless during these cold winter months. Locke’s organization currently operates emergency “warming centers” – in Corvallis and in Victor – staffed by volunteers and open from 10pm to 6am when temperatures fall to 15 degrees or lower (according to KPAX Weather). Once the new Shelter is built, contingency spaces have been included that could accommodate cots for this type of emergency or overflow.
The three projects – the proposed Shelter building, the warming centers and the Community Meals – have kept Locke busy. “I wear a few hats,” he admits. Locke credits his father – who was always helping strangers – for his own charitable spirit. “It’s been a way of life since I was ‘knee high.’ It’s just a way of being.”
The Family Shelter organization, which is a 501(c)(3) public charity, has identified a building site for the shelter and is gathering pledges for the project. So far, funds have been pledged to cover all but $225,000 of the total estimated cost (around $665,000, including the land). Anyone wishing to donate can contact Gary Locke at 239-8833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.