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Helena seeks grant funding for YWCA Helena remodel

Jen Gursky, executive director of the Helena YWCA,

Jen Gursky, executive director of the Helena YWCA, points to areas of water damage in the basement of the organization's Park Avenue building.

The Helena City Commission is applying for a Montana Department of Commerce community development block grant on behalf of YWCA Helena for a remodel project. 

The local nonprofit, which provides transitional housing and supportive services for women and their children experiencing homelessness, is seeking about $1.5 million to fund a build-out of its basement and the installation of a heating and cooling system, in addition to some smaller exterior upgrades.

In total, the project is expected to cost about $1.7 million.

The more than 100-year-old building in downtown Helena underwent major renovations in 2015 that brought some parts of the building's interior up to modern-day code, such as the plumbing and electrical systems.

The newly proposed project would include the build-out of the nonprofit's underutilized basement, adding two additional suites to be used to quarantine residents who have contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The additional square footage would also afford more space for the organization's direct client services.

"Or if the pandemic does go away, we can use that for emergency housing of families or women with children until we find a placement for them," YWCA Helena Executive Director Jen Gursky said during an Oct. 4 City Commission meeting, where the application was approved unanimously.

Additionally, the grant money, should the city be awarded it, would cover the cost of installing an HVAC system and operable windows.

Courtesy of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the state Department of Commerce is doling out more than $10.1 million in the form of community development block grants, aimed at partially funding shovel-ready projects that prevent, prepare for or respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applicants will be ranked based on the department's predetermined criteria and awarded the grant money accordingly.

City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk tempered expectations during the meeting, noting that the average community development block grant award during a typical cycle is about $500,000.

Helena Community Development Department Director Sharon Haugen said it is possible the state Department of Commerce could elect to partially fund the YWCA Helena project.

"YWCA has obviously been working on these projects for quite a while now, and I very much hope that the whole thing gets funded, but it helps to have something at the very least," City Commissioner Emily Dean said.

YWCA Helena Board of Directors President Jessica Stewart-Kuntz highlighted the organization's ability to expand services offered to the community should it receive the award.

"I'm very excited about the project the YWCA is undertaking as the board president," Stewart-Kuntz told the City Commission. "I am proud of the work the Y is doing, and I know the work that building continues to need as a historical, beautiful building that serves incredible women and children."

Should the organization receive only partial funding, Gursky said the plan is to prioritize the individual aspects of the overall project and work through them as future funding becomes available.

Gursky said the basement is at the top of that priority list, as it is one aspect "that really gets us in a place to expand services."

YWCA Helena serves on average about 36 women and 20 children a year. Presently, its wait list is about 25 women long.

During an interview last week, Gursky said YWCA Helena staff recently assisted a 32-weeks pregnant woman who was living on the streets of Helena. She said the organization has no available rooms at the moment, but staff was able to arrange a hotel stay for the woman.

"We want to say 'yes' to people like her," Gursky said. "That is the humanity of community development block grants; we will get to say to 'yes' more often."

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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