Nightly warming shelter to provide respite for those in need
by Nathan Boddy
For those in need of a warm place to sleep, the newly established shelter at 869 Sleeping Child Road just south of Hamilton will come as a tremendous relief. The warming shelter opened its doors last Wednesday the 29th when the temperatures dove into single digits. One of the first to seek refuge for the night was a working family with a two-year-old child.
Founder of Bitterroot Family Shelter, Gary Locke, says that their case was fairly typical. “They had a heater go out in their motor home,” he says, obviously frustrated with the misunderstandings some people have about the warming shelter. “This is not a homeless shelter,” he says. “This is a warming shelter that will be available during the nighttime hours.”
Locke may have his hands full with the many services that Bitterroot Family Shelter provides to residents of the Bitterroot Valley, but is quick to point out that he is not acting alone. “This is not a ‘Gary Locke Project,’” he says. “This is a serious community effort.” Indeed, the non-profit routinely partners with hundreds of local volunteers, business and churches in the area to address the overwhelming and rising needs that many Montanans face, being everything from hunger to periods of homelessness. From the thousands of meals it provides at participating churches, to the provision of basic needs, the organization is at the forefront of trying to address a growing situation.
“We’ve been trying to tell everybody that there’s a problem,” says Locke.
It is no secret that housing is critically short in the Bitterroot Valley, a fact which leads to a slender margin of safety for many Bitterrooters. The Bitterroot Affordable Housing Coalition recently made an updated presentation to the Ravalli County Commissioners about the state of housing in the valley. Its findings were summed up by Stacey Umhey, Executive Director of SAFE (Supporters for Abuse Free Environments), who said, “We are in crisis.”
Locke says that this ‘crisis’ can be illustrated by an annual point-in-time survey, which has been conducted annually by the Bitterroot Family Shelter and the Bitterroot Affordable Housing Coalition for much of the last twenty years. Locke admits that the numbers aren’t perfect, but a clear change took place in 2019 when the number of estimated homeless in Ravalli County jumped from an ongoing average of 40-44 up to 100. The number jumped again in 2020 to 188. “That’s a pretty significant jump,” says Locke.
Local organizations are not the only ones with their fingers on the pulse of the housing crisis, however. The Pew Charitable Trust has conducted a study of the housing situation in Montana and concluded what Locke continues to point out. Their recent release report entitled, “Montana Housing Shortage,” issued in November of 2021, says plainly, “Housing hasn’t kept pace with population growth in Montana.”
But it’s not just availability of housing which is the problem. Locke says that wages in the Bitterroot Valley simply can’t pay for the limited housing that does exist, especially since the upset of the housing market during the COVID pandemic. “You can get a job any day of the week,” says Locke, but “you can’t afford a Bitterroot house on Bitterroot bucks.”
Ultimately, what Locke is most concerned about right now is making it clear to people that those who need to avail themselves of services provided by Bitterroot Family Shelter are “ordinary folks who are in a tight spot.” He adds that they are our friends and neighbors and that, “It could happen to you and me. Most folks are only a month’s paycheck away from being on the street. There’s a lot of people that still think
that homeless folks are dangerous, that they are the ones standing in front of Walmart with a cardboard sign, waiting for handouts or money. The truth is, these are families who are working.”
Families, in specific, can fall into the cracks. Locke says that their studies show that 75% of all homeless are women with children, but that the majority of beds in shelters are available only for single adults. This disconnect puts women and children at a higher risk as they end up staying in, or finding themselves in, dangerous situations while trying to keep their kids out of the cold.
Locke is a third generation Montanan who comes from the Hi-Line area, but says, “My heart is in the Bitterroot Valley.” His more than 40 years in the Bitterroot have seen him stay busy with everything from the Job Service to real estate, but it was his time working with the Salvation Army that opened his eyes to homelessness. “That’s where I met the homeless that we have,” he says. “Before that, I was ‘plum dumb.’”
For information on the warming shelter and the other services provided by Bitterroot Family Shelter, their website is: www.bitterrootfamilyshelter.com or call/ text (406) 239-8833.