This past winter on January 27 as the temperature in the Bitterroot dropped from 19 degrees at 6 p.m. to a low of 3 degrees at 6 a.m. on the 28th, a team of volunteers from the Bitterroot Affordable Housing Coalition (BAHC) was out gathering information on the plight of the homeless. The BAHC is a volunteer organization formed in 2015 to address the lack of affordable housing in Ravalli County. The Coalition is a community effort composed of a broad range of members representing social service organizations, educators, nonprofit organizations, local public assistance, faith-based groups, and concerned citizens including
District XI Human Resource Council, Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE), Affordable Housing Coalition, District XI Human Resource Council, Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE), the Bitterroot Family Shelter, Ravalli County Head Start, Habitat for Humanity, Summit Independent Living, Salvation Army, and Valley Villas.
The annual Point in Time (PiT) survey, a requirement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for communities participating in the Continuum of Care program, is a tool that captures a limited snapshot of the housing insecurity problems in the community. The count takes place on one night in the middle of winter, by which time many experiencing homelessness have found temporary solutions such as couch-surfing or moving somewhere else for the season. On this night about 138 people were found who met HUD’s definition of homelessness which includes people living on the street, using emergency housing services, and residing in structures not meant for permanent habitation such as in tents, sheds, and campers without access to hookups.
The survey also includes questions about demographics and community resource use. In Ravalli County, surveyors connect with people experiencing homelessness through service-providing organizations and door-to-door outreach. The count does not include every person who experiences homelessness in this community but rather those who were visible to surveyors and willing to take the survey during a small window of time. During this year’s PiT, surveyors also encountered several people who may have qualified for the survey and did not want to participate. Ravalli County’s PiT surveyors interviewed some people who could not afford permanent housing and lived in campers with full hookups. While not technically meeting the HUD definition of homelessness, the circumstances and needs of those living in campgrounds are considered important to understand when fully analyzing the community’s housing needs. For data purposes, these surveys were tabulated and collated separately.
“There are many in Ravalli County who do not fall under this exact defi
nition who still lack access to safe and stable housing. None the less, the data we retrieved from this section of Ravalli County’s homeless population does give some insight to general trends,” wrote Jim Morton, in a letter to the Ravalli County Commissioners announcing the survey’s results.
Some conclusions drawn from the survey information worth noting, according to the report, is that children account for more than half of the homeless individuals in the Bitterroot. It was also found that the majority of the unhoused are long-term Ravalli County residents. Some participants’ homes were sold, while others experienced untenable increases in the amount of rent.
About 37% of the participants had physical or mental disabilities or chronic health conditions. Even with these challenges, the majority held jobs. Most incomes from Social Security, Social Security Disability, or Supplemental are well below the ability to afford a place to live. Most participants held full-time jobs.
“This fact demonstrates that it is not a lack of employment that results in homelessness but the lack of affordable housing relative to the wages and salaries in the area,” it states in the report. “Domestic violence survivors face tremendous housing challenges due to the lack of affordable housing. Assistance through local organizations is extraordinarily challenging even if funds are available because of no housing options.”
A historical lack of housing development at all levels combined with staggering growth rates have led to a shortage of housing, in particular housing affordable to low and moderate income households. Limited housing supply has led to skyrocketing prices for both homeownership and rentals. High housing costs have increased overcrowding, homelessness, and reliance upon campers for permanent housing.
Two of BAHC’s member organizations, SAFE (Supporters of Abuse Free Environments) and the Human Resource Council (HRC) are making progress on projects that address the current housing crisis.
SAFE is expanding their emergency shelter and increasing their capacity by 100%. The organization applied for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds with the City of Hamilton and was granted an initial $1,065,500. SAFE has applied for additional grants and is running a capital campaign to meet their ultimate goal of $2,375,000 for the project.
HRC acquired a centrally located, shovel-ready parcel of land in the City of Hamilton for construction of eight affordable rental units. HRC will apply for grant funds for the construction of the affordable rental units. This follows HRC’s development of a 16-unit affordable housing project, Box Bird, in Stevensville in 2021.
“While we hope these projects will provide some relief from the stress of the current housing crisis, there is much work to be done. Lack of affordable housing is the number one issue in the County,” states the report.
For more detailed information about the survey results you may contact Stacey Umhey at SAFE, 363-2793, [email protected] or Jim Morton at HRC, 728-3710, [email protected]