Housing Our Heroes: A Montana Shelter Helps Veterans Become Homeowners

October 7, 2015 | By

On any given day an estimated 500 homeless people are on the streets or in the shelters of Missoula, Montana—the University of Montana college town located in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The homeless population in Missoula is not homogenous; people have their own needs and their own stories. But many of them share a common experience: They served in the U.S. military.

Among the nearly 550,000 people in the U.S. who are homeless, 11 percent are veterans, according to the 2014 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. In Montana, a state that has a disproportionately high number of servicemen and servicewomen, that number climbs to between 20 and 30 percent.

For many of these veterans, the Poverello Center, a nonprofit that works with Missoula’s homeless population, is a way back to independent living.

The center’s emergency shelter provides everything from a phone call to a family member and an address to list on a job application, to a hot meal, free medical care, and a bed to sleep in.

Beyond these fundamentals, the Poverello Center offers housing services for veterans.

Temporary Housing with Permanent Housing Ambitions

The Valor House and Housing Montana Heroes are temporary housing programs operated by the Poverello Center. The programs house select eligible veterans in apartment units with onsite support services for six to 24 months. But the service comes with longer-term goals.

“With all the residents in our transitional housing program, we are aiming toward settling them in independent permanent housing,” says Tessa Heuermann, director of support services at the Poverello Center.

The financial barriers to this goal are great considering Missoula’s real estate paradox—the median home price is $250,00, while the median income is $30,000.

The Poverello Center leans on other support services in the community for the financial education to overcome these barriers. HomeWord is one of those organizations.

Homeword provides homebuyer education and financial fitness classes for the greater Missoula community and many Poverello residents, something the Poverello Center says serves as a foundation of knowledge for the veterans that use its services.

“So many people jump into rentals, mortgages, and financial decisions without an understanding of the implications,” says Kellie Battaglia, operations and programs director at HomeWord. “An action plan and long-term thinking are needed to be a homeowner.”

With the right education and planning, “people cannot only realize their dream of having a home, but avoid financial burdens on the back end,” Battaglia added.

With this baseline education and the continued support of the Poverello Center’s programs, many of Missoula’s homeless veterans have been able to achieve independent living.

More Than a Hot Meal and a Bed

There is little funding for shelters like the Poverello Center in Montana, the fourth-largest state by land size but the 44th largest by population size. As a result, the center caters to people living as far as 300 miles away.

“Our shelter’s numbers end up on par with urban shelters,” says Eran Fowler Pehan, director of the Poverello Center.

But the center often aspires to more than just a night of care.

“We provide the basic amenities, which are invaluable, but we also try to work on the root causes,” Pehan says. “We try to prevent the cyclical pattern of homelessness.”

Helping homeless veterans transition into civilian life has its “challenges,” says Heuermann.

It is at this point that the Poverello Center steps in, providing an alternative safety net.

The Journey to Independent Living

The process of moving veterans off the streets and into independent living is a slow one.

It may begin in the center’s emergency shelter, where servicemen and servicewomen are offered additional support services and longer stays. Case managers are on staff to coordinate access to resources and help these veterans file disability or GI Bill claims.

That initial contact may lead to entry into the Valor House or Housing Montana Heroes, where veterans are provided a stable environment and extended shelter. With basic amenities, 24/7 staff support, medical and mental-health care, financial education resources, and shuttles to doctor’s appointments and job opportunities, veterans are given a housing unit and a chance to find solid footing.

This stay provides a foundation from which to jump off into an apartment complex and a paying job.

Specifically, a stay at the Valor House—a partnership with the Missoula Housing Authority, a housing agency approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—certifies veterans for a Housing Choice Voucher and access to HUD-based facilities, where only 30 percent of income goes toward rent. These low-income housing facilitates are an invaluable first step toward nonsubsidized housing and homeownership, allowing veterans to begin saving and build their financial self-sufficiency.

These transitional housing programs also provide a sense of camaraderie and community for individuals who have often lost ties to their friends and family.

“We recently had three residents who met in our facility move into the same apartment complex together. They wanted to continue their friendship and continue to support each other,” says Heuermann.

Although not all of the Poverello Center’s stories are success stories, it is a story like this that shows why the center is invaluable to those it serves.

The Poverello Center took a group of veterans off the streets and into their facility. These veterans left with jobs, housing, and the sense of community that makes the difference between a shelter and a home.

“This organization helped keep me in social work,” says Pehan, who worked in child mental health for a decade before her time at the Poverello Center. “We help people in ways that make sense.”

“To me, the Poverello Center feels like a home.”

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