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A rose is held in honor of the death of a homeless person in Helena.

A new coalition in Helena aims reduce the strain on community services by developing a housing plan for the homeless.

The Helena Regional Housing is Healthcare Project brings together representatives from United Way, St. Peter's Health, law enforcement, city and county government and nonprofit organizations. The group met for the first time Thursday. 

Michael O'Neil, executive director of the Helena Housing Authority, said the project will first identify the "biggest users" of community services, such as the emergency room, the county jail, and aging and homeless services. The Helena Police Department, United Way, St. Peter's Health and other stakeholders will share information about people using resources in a way that maintains their privacy but allows the group to understand who relies on them most. 

Multiple speakers during Thursday's meeting referenced Boise, Idaho, where community leaders were able to drastically cut the costs of public services by providing inexpensive housing and health care for those who needed it most. Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen and Helena United Way CEO Allison Munson were part of a group that traveled to Boise last month to observe the results of the project.

Hunthausen said the county is already providing $380,000 in taxpayer money to help fund care for people with unstable housing, and he believes this project could make that money go further. 

"It cost $250,000 to provide help for a user," Hunthausen said. "But if you give them housing worth, say, $15,000 with wraparound services, you're saving the community money."

St. Peter's Health is invested in the project because "without appropriate housing, it's not always possible" for people to live their lives to their fullest, CEO Wade Johnson said. 

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said the city hopes the project will "focus on the needs of families and individuals who are homeless or with unstable housing." 

"The city of Helena is identifying projects and housing to be used for affordable housing," Collins said. "City property could possibly be developed as part of the planning projects."

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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