Outside in the parking lot of God’s Love Inc., a few people stand in the cold for a quick smoke.
A woman gives her cigarette to a man who is standing nearby and then goes back inside this homeless shelter on Last Chance Gulch in Helena, saying it’s too cold to be outside.
Inside the building, men and women sit on sofas and chairs watching television, talking and perhaps reading. Steam rises from the kitchen where cooks and helpers are preparing dinner that will soon be served. The floor beneath a Christmas tree with its lights and ornaments is filled with presents.
It’s Christmas Eve.
In another room are the beds where many of those who are here for the meal and the gifts later in the evening will sleep if they decide to stay the night.
Joe Wojton, co-director of God’s Love, said earlier in the day that the shelter is generally at capacity during the winter and all of its 31 beds in the men’s dorm are filled as are the eight beds that it has for women in its emergency shelter area.
The overflow will be given a place on the floor.
This is the 28th year for God’s Love, which provides food, clothing and a temporary place to live at no cost for anyone who comes through its doors.
The shelter has a roughly $350,000 annual budget, of which the United Way in Helena contributes $55,000. Small grants from Rocky Mountain Development Center and Lewis and Clark County also help with the annual expense.
However, the bulk of the organization’s funding comes from donations, Wojton said, adding that most of that money and assistance is delivered in November and December.
“The Helena community just always really steps up,” he said.
The Christmas gifts that fill the floor beneath the tree are another indication, for him, of the community’s generosity and support of God’s Love.
Funds from the federal Housing and Urban Development program finance nine rooms in the building where families can live on a longer-term basis but pay a portion of their income as rent. They may be there from six months to two years as they transition back to living on their own, he said.
For those who come in seeking a bed, they can be there up to three days. Those who are on disability, Social Security, or as outpatients for the Veterans Administration at Fort Harrison can be at God’s Love for up to two weeks or longer as the needs dictate, Wojton said.
“Everybody’s homeless situation is a little different,” he added.
The shelter uses a fiscal year that begins April 1 and ends March 31. Since this year began in April, the shelter has had 591 different people come and ask for at least a night’s stay.
This year’s numbers, with three months still to go, show an increase in requests for help as during the past fiscal year, the shelter had 630 people who asked to spend one night or more, Wojton said.
“I’m going to shatter that 630 this year,” he added.
Of the 591 who have asked for assistance at the shelter so far this year, 129 are women, 121 are veterans and 32 are age 65 or older. The remainder of those who came seeking help are men.
Another statistic Wojton provides is that 150 of the 591 are people reporting they suffer from a mental illness. Among last year’s 630 clients, 132 said they suffered from a mental illness.
The shelter’s co-director said the national economy has played a significant role in boosting a reliance on the shelter for food and housing.
More people who came from out-of-state looking for work couldn’t find any here just as they couldn’t back where they used to call home, Wojton said.
And the money that people have in fixed incomes isn’t able to last as long as it used to each month, as food costs have increased.
Those with monthly disability checks find they can’t pay for housing and if they are able to cover this expense, there isn’t money for utilities and food, Wojton said.
Still others that he sees who are homeless are those who simply can’t afford a place to rent.
Between 2010 and 2011, God’s Love served about 10,000 more meals and then saw that number jump by about 12,000 between 2011 and 2012.
“As the month progresses, I feed more people on a daily basis,” Wojton said of how those on fixed incomes look to God’s Love when their money runs out.