Housing in Helena is in short supply for those with little to spare for the cost of a roof over their heads.

And the ability to travel across town for those who don’t own their own transportation is a challenge, too, a community conversation revealed Wednesday night on what’s needed in Helena.

The conversation is held annually by staffs from the city of Helena and Lewis and Clark County to meet requirements for state administered grants. The discussions also provide documentation that can help when applying for other grants, according to city staff.

Most of the more than 35 people who filled a room in the City-County Building had something to say about what's needed or what their organizations are doing to provide services to people who rely on social service agencies for assistance. Others said were there to listen.

The concerns voiced by participants mirrored what past conversations have contained, said Laura Erikson, the county’s grants coordinator.

“Housing is critical along all affordability levels, from the very low income to the middle,” she said and explained it affects individuals from seniors and people with disabilities to those who are trying to make a fresh start after returning from state care or incarceration.

While the county commission will make the decision on which need to try and meet through a grant application “the benefit of having these hearings is that we can strategize on our sponsorship,” Erikson said.

The county and city work well with each other, she said and explained that if either is not able to apply for a grant to solve a community need the other will try to seek those funds.

Public transportation also remains a critical need, she said.

The aging of the community in the coming years is an issue raised by many of those who participated in the conversation, said Sharon Haugen, the city’s community development director.

“We heard that not only do we need more housing but we need more quality rental housing not only for the elderly but for people with some mobility issues, mental health issues.

“It’s not only building new housing, there’s also some issues with some of our existing housing. And where do you find the funds improving the level that you have so you have the same number of units? But you’re also going to have to look at building new units. It’s a challenge that the community’s going to have,” Haugen said.

“It is going to have to take a comprehensive community approach and a continuation of everybody working together to help move forward in solving those.”

Gary Mihelish, with the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was one of the voices for housing and said it’s needed for people with mental illness as well as for those who are transitioning from the state mental health hospital and from the state prison.

A lack of success in finding transitional housing is one of the causes for the recidivism rates at both institutions, he said.

Peggy Stringer, with the Helena Regional Sports Association, spoke of the need for an indoor sports facility with an indoor pool.

The community lacks space for indoor soccer, volleyball or other sports, she said.

The walkability of Helena was a concern for Dennis McCahon who said the ability to walk in a community helps make it attractive to people.

“Walkability is what ties a town together,” he continued and said he would like to see a planning effort initiated this year so there can be discussion on specific proposals during next year’s community needs assessment.

Brian Obert, Montana Business Assistance Connection executive director, asked that those who are in the middle income brackets not be forgotten.

These people shouldn’t be pushed into Broadwater County or in towns near Helena just because the housing there fits their budgets, he said.

David Smith, chief executive officer of the Helena Family YMCA, said a planning grant is allowing his organization to look at its future in terms of economic development.

The YMCA is looking at shifting its business model into providing child care and early learning through a $25,000 Big Sky Trust Fund planning grant that was matched equally by the YMCA, he said after the meeting.

The fitness business model has shifted over the years and now there are some 30 facilities in addition to the YMCA that offer fitness programs, Smith said.

Rocky Mountain Development Council is seeing the result of an increase in an aging population, said its director, Lori Ladas.

The organization’s needs include space and facilities, she said and explained the RMDC kitchen is about at capacity in its ability to provide meals.

Both planning and public facility grants are of interest to RMDC as it seeks to meet needs for services, Ladas said.

Clare Smillie, a volunteer coordinator at Good Samaritan Ministries in Helena, noted the need for weekend and evening public transportation, which the city’s bus service doesn’t provide.

Public transportation is a quality of life issue for those who rely on the bus, she explained.

Smillie said there's a need for quality child care and for a quality shelter for people who are homeless.

Michael O’Neil, executive director of Helena Housing Authority, said the master plan for Stewart Homes, an HHA housing development in Helena, would cost between $35 million and $40 million to implement.

The 12.2 acre site, along Montana Avenue which is busy with traffic, has 132 units that range in size from one to four bedroom. The master plan would produce between 150 to 160 units, according to a presentation on the master plan contained online.

Half of the homes there date to 1939, O’Neil said and noted improving it is Helena Housing Authority’s greatest need.

“The need is great today. It’s only going to be greater tomorrow.”

Youth Homes of Missoula, which acquired the Shaw Therapeutic Youth Home for Girls and the Margaret Stuart Youth Home for Boys and Girls from RMDC, needs assistance with a planning grant or a Community Development Block Grant to rebuild them, said Curt Chisholm on behalf of the organization.

The Jan Shaw facility has been supporting and sheltering Montana youths since 1975. The Margaret Stuart facility also dates to 1975.

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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