Haley Morton has never had a trust fund, an inheritance or a wealthy family to pay for college. She’s a single mother of two young children who works hard to provide for them without financial help passed down from generations.
“Everything I have, I got on my own,” she said.
So when a 3 a.m. fire that wasn’t her fault completely destroyed their rented trailer in Clinton in early October, taking the life of one of her dogs, she was left with severe burns and without a safety net. There was no large savings account or insurance payout or a family member’s house waiting to alleviate the nightmare.
She works at a local motel, but like many Missoulians, she lives paycheck to paycheck and one unexpected disaster beyond her control had left her family homeless.
They stayed in a motel for several days, until the Clinton Community Church stepped up to offer her a space upstairs, where she and the kids, ages 4 and 6, slept on air mattresses for six weeks. It wasn’t a long-term solution.
That’s when the Housing Advocate Network, a program started by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, worked with Morton to develop a housing plan and start taking steps to finding a long-term place to live. They also connected her to the “Rent Wise” educational workshops hosted by Homeword.
Morton did a lot of the groundwork and found a trailer in Bonner where she’s now happily residing, but Zeke Campfield and Carla Mettling worked with her to connect her with resources, tax credit help and guidance as she navigated homelessness.
“This program provides a sort of relational ‘stopgap’ for homeless folks in Missoula while they’re sitting on waiting lists, while they’re waiting for (Department of Housing and Urban Development) funding to come through, while they’re waiting on a governmental solution,” Campfield explained. “There’s volunteers who are ready to roll up their sleeves and start creating solutions today.”
Morton said just having someone who cared and a support system in place during that time made all the difference in the world.
“It was just huge to have them,” she said. “Huge.”
“We support the person, so they don’t feel like they’re rejected,” Mettling said.
Campfield said that most people helped by the network find housing on their own, but having someone there to help them explore options, keep them organized and offer advice is crucial. He’s careful to explain that advocates don’t tell people what to do.
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”(The Network) is a coalition of everyday Missoulians who actually volunteer to work one-on-one with individuals and families experiencing homelessness,” he said.
Right now, there are more than 50 such volunteers who have been through orientation, and trained and supported.
"Most of them are matched with an individual or family, ranging from young adults coming out of foster care, folks coming out of incarceration and pre-release, individuals at the Poverello Center and families like the Mortons," Campfield said.
Since March, he said, about 120 people have been reached by the advocates. About a third have found housing successfully, another third are at risk of homelessness and another third just stopped communicating with the advocates or moved away.
Campfield said some of the people they work with face severe challenges, such as coming out of intergenerational poverty, coming out of prison or navigating life after years of sleeping outside.
“There’s a powerlessness, a helplessness, a lot of personal stuff that comes with that,” Campfield said. “It can be challenging for our volunteers. It’s easy to look the other way. The community has sort of let them down.”
Many, like Morton, don’t have credit cards so they have a poor credit history when they go to apply for rental housing. Each application can involve a $50 fee, only to be rejected, and rent and housing prices in Missoula have been rising faster than wages for the last decade. Often, a landlord will want the first and last month’s deposit up front, something many people just don’t have. For people on a fixed income, even an “affordable” one-bedroom apartment for $650 a month is out of reach. There are many barriers to housing, Mettling and Campfield said, including income level, systemic cultural bias, criminal history, a lack of co-signers, a lack of credit and competition with others who want the same housing unit.
“These are people who want to work, who do work, but there are real prejudices they face,” Campfield explained. “There’s an imbalance of power. The face of homelessness in Missoula is families like the Mortons.”
Both he and Mettling agree that people’s legal and financial troubles are often caused by a lack of housing, rather than being the cause of their lack of housing. Often, it’s much more cost-effective for a community to pay for housing people rather than paying for expensive emergency medical services.
Campfield is the Housing Advocate Network program manager. He said volunteering in the program is extremely difficult for many people.
“This isn’t like walking a dog at the Humane Society,” he said. “There are lots of problems. ‘How can I go crawl into my own bed at night knowing there are people sleeping in cars or on the streets at night?’ There’s a lot of defeat and despair, but there’s also joy when we have success story like Haley's.”