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The statistics are sobering.

One in seven people in Ravalli County are on the program most know as food stamps.

One in 15 received help on their energy bills due to low income levels.

In 2004, the Ravalli County Office of Public Assistance served a few more than 1,900 households under the program once called welfare. Today, that number is more than 3,300.

In Montana, one in three families in 2010 were at risk of not having enough money to keep their refrigerators stocked once all the other bills were paid. One in five children in the state live below the poverty line.

Those were some of the statistics shared with nearly 50 people Friday night at an event titled "Hunger and Homelessness in the Bitterroot: A Community Conversation" at the St. Francis Parish Center in Hamilton.

The event was organized to begin a conversation about the impacts on community members struggling following the downturn in the national economy. Local experts from county food banks, a homeless shelter and human services shared their thoughts on the variety of issues that face the community in that regard.

As difficult as the situation is in Ravalli County, speakers also voiced their deep appreciation of the fact that the community had stepped up to help its own in these difficult times.

"There is a bright side to our story," said Larry Pittack, board chair for the Haven House Food Bank. "A lot of the food that we are able to provide to people comes from community food drives or is purchased by monies given to us by the community."

Haven House provides almost 200 tons of food every year to people in need in the Hamilton area. Every month, it gives out 509 boxes of food, each of which are intended to feed a family for up to five days.

On average, that service provides food for 1,357 people every month.

Every month, Haven House adds, on average, 85 new households to its registry.

"Through this economic downturn, we've seen the numbers go up of people needing help," Pittack said. "We were worried about the potential of not having enough additional help from the community to meet those increases."

"The good news is those decreases in giving never occurred," he said. "We saw a corresponding match in increased giving of more food and more money from the community. We were just absolutely flabbergasted and amazed that we could live in place where that would happen."

Darby Bread Box Food Pantry president Bart Bartkowski said that community has also offered its support during the inaugural year of the facility.

The Darby food bank is currently serving about 114 families a month in the southern reaches of the valley. Bartkowski said 50 percent of those families are either living on Social Security or disability payments. Another 32 percent have employment, but fall below the poverty line.

"These are different times that most of us have ever seen before," Bartkowski said. "There are families out there who never thought they would be in this situation. It could be your neighbor."

Patty West, director of the county's Office of Public Assistance, said the myth that people on welfare have chosen that path because they are lazy and don't want to work just isn't true.

"There are a lot of people who are living on the edge right now," West said. "It wouldn't take much to knock them off the wall. They might be your neighbor who has worked hard for the last 30 years, but a major medical expense or a job loss pushes them over the edge."

"There are a lot of hardworking people out there who have found themselves in financial troubles right now," she said.

Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman said the challenging economic times have created more work for his office as well. In some cases, when temperatures plunge, his officers have come across people breaking the law just to have a warm place to spend the night.

The sheriff's office also sees transients who are living hand to mouth. It provides food and gas vouchers paid for by the local ministerial association and the Salvation Army on a case by case basis.

Last year, Hoffman said the sheriff's office gave out 53 vouchers. In the first five weeks of this year, it handed out 29.

"My understanding now is the Salvation Army is just flat out of money for temporary housing vouchers," Hoffman said.

Homelessness in Ravalli County is an issue that Gary Locke has a lost a good deal of sleep over in the past few years.

In 2010, Locke helped lead the effort to start a homeless shelter called The Lighthouse of the Bitterroot on lands owned by the Big Sky Christian Center on the northern edge of Hamilton. In its first 18 months, it provided 5,374 shelter nights to homeless men, women and children.

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The Lighthouse organization is no longer associated with the facility following a dust-up with the owner of the property and is now looking for another location.

"We would like to find another place where we could start another shelter that would cater to families," Locke said. "We want to be able to catch these people while they still have resources and help them so they can get up and going again."

They have located a facility at the old Nazerene Church in Victor that could be remodeled to house up to 70 people comfortably. Locke said the estimated cost of the project could near $600,000.

"We need to find a place that is close to Hamilton and we need to find some money," he said. "I need all the help I can get."

Locke's number is 239-8833.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, Hoffman stood to say that something remarkable had just happened there. Fifty people had given up Friday night to learn more about hunger and poverty in their community.

"The only time I see 50 people gather together at a meeting is to yell at the commissioners," Hoffman said. "It's a pretty huge thing that you all gathered here tonight because you are interested in homelessness and hunger in the Bitterroot Valley. I'm so proud of all of you to show up here and listen."

Pittack said it's been good for his heart and soul to be involved in this issue of addressing hunger in the community.

It's not only the well-off that are reaching out to those in need.

"We have clients who are coming in and giving us something," Pittack said. "They might be driving a car that is just barely getting around. Their clothes might not be so nice, but they tell us that they want to help someone who is worse off than they are."

"They want to help others too," he said. "The people in this community have just responded in such a remarkable way."

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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