GREAT FALLS — The only two homeless shelters on the Fort Peck reservation have been closed for months under order of Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure, who said they were contaminated with methamphetamine.
Azure said that a general lack of supervision and stolen items were also factors in his decision to shut the shelters down.
The shelter in Wolf Point shut its doors last spring, and the New Life Mission in Poplar closed a few months later, according to community members. Though there is no official number, they estimate around 100 people experiencing homelessness regularly used the shelters.
Temperatures on the Fort Peck reservation have dropped well below zero degrees during winter months, and in years past, people experiencing homelessness have frozen to death.
The Fort Peck reservation is home to two Native American tribes, the Nakoda, or Assiniboine, and the Dakota, or Sioux. According to the governor's website, about 6,800 tribal members live on the Fort Peck reservation, which spans more than two million acres in eastern Montana.
In his inauguration in October, Azure stressed the importance of reopening the shelters.
"We need to open (the shelters) up before it gets cold. Traditionally, we took care of each other. We have to get back to that," he said.
Despite Azure's call to action, the shelters have been closed for months. Meanwhile, people experiencing homelessness have been sleeping in vacant buildings, some without heat or running water.
As the threat of another cold winter approaches, Fort Peck residents are eager to reopen the shelters — but their actions are limited.
'Extremely difficult to remove'
Meth contamination can be harmful to everyone, but children under 8 years old and animals are especially vulnerable to chronic and acute health issues, resulting from exposure.
Joe Mazzuca is operation manager for Meth Lab Cleanup, a company that provides drug lab testing, training and decontamination services nationwide.
"Meth is extremely difficult to remove," Mazzuca said, adding that people must be certified to decontaminate a property. "It's almost indestructible. It's very small from a molecular standpoint. You can't neutralize it, you have to physically remove it."
The Fort Peck Housing Authority, which has certified meth cleaners, is tasked with decontaminating both shelters. Azure said Friday the Wolf Point shelter has been cleaned, is awaiting inspection and could open soon.
Housing Authority Director Robin Bighorn said crews had not started decontaminating the Poplar shelter as of last month.
Despite Bighorn's timeline, multiple people said they have not heard when the cleaning process will be complete.
Though states are subject to decontamination regulations, sovereign nations are not under state jurisdiction and must determine their own regulations.
Mazzuca said that his organization visits Native American reservations, where they teach people how to decontaminate a property, protect themselves from exposure, test contamination levels and determine and enforce their own regulations.
Though it depends on the level of contamination and size of a given building, Mazzuca said it generally takes about 10 days to decontaminate and clear an average three-bedroom, two-bathroom household.
According to Lee Yelin, a meth cleanup contractor who is based in Missoula, smooth, hard surfaces are easier to clean than porous ones. He recommends people incorporate linoleum flooring, high-quality oil-based primers and paints and vinyl cabinets. He also recommends boilers instead of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
"That way, if one room is contaminated, (the meth) doesn't go into the ventilation system and contaminate the whole building," he said.
Though Yelin's recommendations could be costly, he said they will help save money in the cleanup process, particularly for shelters that support people struggling with addiction and may consequently need to be cleaned more often than other properties.
"It's much easier than having to demo everything every time because that just gets too costly," he said.
Why did the shelters close?
For Tina Speed, resident of Wolf Point, homeless shelter closures in Fort Peck are a familiar story.
According to her, the shelter in Wolf Point used to have paid employees. But about two years ago, when the shelter ran out of money, the employees shut its doors.
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Speed said it was left in bad condition. Dead flies collected on the floors, papers were left on desks and food rotted in the refrigerator.
But that didn't stop Speed and others from "rolling up their sleeves" and cleaning the shelter.
"Everybody pitched in to keep people warm," she said.
Someone set up a plumbing system, another donated a refrigerator, someone else donated a washer and dryer and others donated furniture.
Soon, the shelter reopened, serving as a symbol of pride in the community, according to Speed.
Speed said that when it reopened, the shelter did not pay employees. Instead, a deal was made. A man would act as a volunteer caretaker, ensuring that the shelter's residents left when they were supposed to during the day, cleaned up after themselves and were respectful of each other and the property. In exchange, the man lived at the shelter and was not required to leave during the day.
Speed said this system worked for a while. But soon, shelter residents grew frustrated with the caretaker's rules.
"The caretaker was just catching all the flak for trying to remind people of the rules. They acted like he was some kind of tyrant," said Speed.
Responding to the criticism, the caretaker stopped enforcing the rules. Consequently, people started stealing from the shelter. The previously donated refrigerator, washing machine and dryer were all stolen. Speed said she heard that even some of the copper piping was stolen.
Chaos ensued. Speed said people started claiming rooms in the shelter and refusing to leave during the day. People also said that a family moved into the shelter when they were not supposed to. People experiencing homelessness who struggle with addiction were also said to have been using meth in the shelter.
As someone who pitches in herself, Speed said most people in the community have heard her speech about helping others.
"I encourage people (in the shelter) to be adults, look out for each other, step up and say, 'Hey, that's not right.' … They can all pitch in and be good guests because they're each other's guests. So, they could help with the housework, the cleaning and cooking," she said, though she also acknowledged that it's nearly impossible to enforce these actions without a caretaker in charge.
Additionally, experts say it can be especially difficult for people struggling with addiction to hold themselves accountable.
"People will often try to tackle (substance abuse) with their logic, and substance abuse defies traditional logic," said Justin Evans, a therapist who runs a private practice in Helena and has experience as a clinical director for three different drug rehabilitation centers in Arizona.
According to Evans, it is especially important for people struggling with addiction to understand why they should do certain tasks, like pitching in to help a shelter function.
"You can't just tell them, 'You need to make your bed every day. Just do it.' … It (should be) explained as part of a whole process and why accountability is important, why these little things are important. … An addict is going to be pretty focused on the here and now, and they don't typically get the bigger picture all by themselves," he said.
Edward Dunbar, assistant professor of counseling at Montana State University and counselor in Manhattan, said that addiction is a medical issue, specifically a brain disorder, and requires professional support.
"It's not something you can just stop, and it goes away," Dunbar said. "One of the things that counseling and medical providers do is educate people and make them aware of what recovery is going to look like. … So, letting them know that they're going to have cravings, they're going to have some mood swings, they're going to have some mental health stuff that might start to flare up. If you can get ahead of that, your odds of recovery are better than if you just say, 'stop.'"
'Back to square one'
Because only certified people can decontaminate the shelters, Speed and others are unable to help clean them, as they did before.
"I'm sure we could go in and get money from the community and do a fundraiser and get another washer and dryer, get more towels, get more bedding, whatever we needed donated. We could do it all again. But if the tribe doesn't want anyone in there because of the meth contamination, we can't really do anything about that," Speed said. "It's disappointing."
Azure doesn't just want to decontaminate the shelters. He wants to support people experiencing homelessness in new ways and ensure the shelters to stay open longer than a few months.
"We want to make sure that they're well taken care of and that their health is OK," Azure said. "We want to be able to detect any issues with them before they get too bad."
When the shelters reopen, Azure plans to work with Health Promotion Disease Prevention (HPDP), an organization that is funded through Medicare and Medicaid and works to improve the overall health of tribal members. With support from HPDP, Azure said he plans to incorporate therapists, nutritionists and addiction counselors in the shelters.
"I should have done this two years ago, but I never thought about going this route," Azure said. "But when … you're stuck between a rock and a hard place, I guess you go back to square one."