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Many of us were saddened to read about the death of homeless Hamilton resident Linda Shelley. Although the 61-year-old was receiving help with housing and finding a job, it appears that she believed herself to be a burden to those around her. She left the motel where she was staying and froze to death sometime before being found on February 16th.

This tragic death draws attention to the issue of homelessness in Montana. Data from the Point in Time survey (a national, annual survey of the homeless) administered in January 2013 estimated that 1,878 Montanans were homeless. Like Ms. Shelley, about 784 of these were found to be unsheltered – meaning that they were living outdoors or in places unfit for human habitation. The number of homeless Montanans is increasing – it has almost doubled since 2007, and the number of unsheltered homeless has nearly tripled (according to HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development).

Deaths among those who, like Ms. Shelley, die due to homelessness are difficult to track. The Montana Department of Health and Human Services estimated in 2011 that at least 37 Montanans died that year due to homelessness. The homeless die decades sooner than their housed counterparts, often due to chronic (and preventable) medical conditions (according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council). Mental health issues and substance abuse frequently come into play as well. For example, homeless people are nine times more likely than housed individuals to commit suicide (according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

As a community, let’s commit to working harder to stop these preventable deaths. If you see someone who appears to be homeless, ask if he or she has somewhere to sleep that night. Be familiar with the resources available in your community. Many people may avoid asking for help because they don’t want to be a bother to others. Encourage them to think of the help as a hand-up to self-sufficiency, rather than a hand-out. Montana Legal Services Association may be able to assist tenants and homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes. Call 1-800-666-6899 for more information. For other local resources, visit www.courts.mt.gov/selfhelp, click the image of your region, then scroll to the bottom of the page and under “Community Resources,” choose your county.

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Amy Hall is a housing attorney with Montana Legal Services Association, and Liz Leman is an AmeriCorps Justice for Montanans member there.

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