Faith in Action 19

MIC helps our faith communities unite to fight homelessness

Our western Montana town has always seemed like a safe place. Mountains cradle us, a river provides fertility, and we are fed by an expanse of surrounding farmland. Within these city limits, good things happen: Missoulians are well-known for valuing social services, living with compassion, and maintaining a strong commitment to community.

But it’s the very space we hold dear that insulates us from one another just enough to hide a stark reality: On any given day in Missoula, at least 200 people don’t have a place to go at night. And while a portion of this population is chronically homeless and visible, an estimated 40 percent are families.

We don’t see homeless families because generally they don’t camp out on the streets of downtown. Instead, they stay with friends and family, sleep in their cars, and turn to shelters when they have no other options. But with limited resources, Missoula’s shelters only offer a temporary solution. Homelessness, by contrast, is maddeningly self-perpetuating.

Not So Far Removed from Struggle

This past spring, when nightly temperatures still hovered in the 30s, “Roxanne” and her 14-year-old son found themselves weighing their options. It had been several months since the two had fled their long-time home in a small Montana town to find safety in Missoula after an eviction that stemmed from a domestic dispute. They stayed with family for the first few weeks, but even with that support system, rental stipulations eventually led them to stay in a shelter while they looked for permanent housing.

Daily life can be exhausting without a consistent place to stay, even for those without health concerns. But Roxanne suffers from fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by fatigue, memory loss, and intense widespread musculoskeletal pain. After leaving behind her home and an abusive relationship, Roxanne’s only source of income was her disability check, and it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of—or even get approved—for a meager Missoula rental.

As their situation worsened over weeks, the constant stress of their unstable situation caused her symptoms to flare up, and she needed a place to rest as well as a place to house her son. Roxanne had just spent the last of her funds on a hotel room when she received a phone call. “I work with Family Promise,” said the woman on the phone. “We’ll help you find somewhere to stay.”

Rallying Congregations to Work Together

Family Promise is the newest program under the umbrella of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative, a local organization founded in 2011. The program, which houses four homeless families at a time in a different church each week, relies on the collaboration of 26 local congregations. Though Missoula’s chapter of Family Promise started as a program of a larger national organization, they recently merged with MIC, and the continued work of the congregations together is the product of five years of MIC’s involvement in the community.

In a nutshell, MIC’s long-term mission is to help Missoula combat pressing social issues by empowering faith communities to work together. The organization, which now houses five different programs specifically addressing issues related to poverty and homelessness, grew from a graduate thesis project led by the group’s founder, Casey Dunning.

As a young adult, Dunning worked as an engineer. But growth in his personal faith and a desire for more meaningful work led him to make a career shift into social work, just as he was starting his own family. And as he spent more time working in the field, he began to observe a disconnect between faith communities and the needy. At church, he saw a group of people who wanted to bring positivity to the world; at work, he saw people who weren’t getting the community support they needed.

When it came time to put together a thesis for his Master of Social Work at the University of Montana, Dunning decided to pose a question to a number of churches around town. He asked, simply: How do faith communities become more involved in the community? The resulting conversation around actionable change would serve as a foundation for MIC.

As organized groups, faith communities are ideal drivers for social change. They share things like an inherent value of serving and compassion for outcasts, and they meet regularly to discuss their values. But they don’t always communicate well with each other, which diminishes their capacity to create a more widespread impact. This is where MIC comes in.

Dunning began his approach to filling the void by reaching out to each individual congregation with another question: Which social issue most needs our attention right now? Together, all 30 of the groups reached a consensus to focus on family homelessness, and the combined resources formulated MIC.

Making Progress

Five months after Roxanne and her son first arrived in Missoula, Roxanne sits in her living room. She’s an outgoing, cheerful woman, and when asked about Family Promise, she remembers how important it was to have a place to rest during the day. “I called myself the day center mascot,” said Roxanne, laughing. With that stability and the attention of an advocate who helped her stay on top of paperwork and appointments, Roxanne found a place in transitional housing within several months.