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Fire code crackdown halts overnight shelters in Billings churches

Homeless in front of downtown church
Posted at 8:18 AM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-24 10:18:01-05

BILLINGS — For decades, churches across Montana have sheltered people experiencing homelessness, giving them a place to spend the night out of the cold.

Fire inspectors in Billings recently declared many of these buildings are not up to snuff for overnight stays, leaving social services struggling to fill the gaps.

Executive Director of Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley Lisa Donnot said the organization received a cease and desist from the Billings city fire inspector in November.

"Telling us that there are not any congregations within the city limits that meet fire code in order to temporarily house anyone," Donnot said.

"He said not one person can sleep in one church, not for one night."

Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley operates under a model of interfaith congregations rotating space, meal preparation, and volunteer time, allowing people experiencing homelessness to stay overnight in each church for about a week at a time, and also access assistance with employment, budgeting, searching for housing, and more.

Donnot says the city is enforcing codes that require fire suppression and alert systems pursuant to other overnight stay facilities like motels, which many churches do not have, forcing Family Promise to turn away 50 families seeking aid.

The discrepancy of church and code has reached state lawmakers, specifically in Senate Bill 195, which exempts certain buildings, including many churches, from having to install fire sprinkler systems.

City of Billings spokesperson Victoria Hill says at this point, the city is going to wait and see what legislators decide to do with the bill and will plan accordingly once they make their decision.

On Monday, lawmakers in the Senate Local Government Committee heard the bill, carried by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, a Republican from Great Falls.

"The problem here is local governments going beyond their authority that normally stems from state law and rule," Trebas said.

During opponent testimony, firefighters spoke against the bill, saying the matter at hand is the potential dangers to occupants and emergency responders should a fire break out.

"Though we empathize with the points brought by the bill's sponsor and the points brought by Family Promise, and we fully respect the hard work our faith-based organizations put into serving our marginalized and under-served communities, I must speak to the body of the bill, which we do oppose on Senate Bill 195," said Ole Hedstrom, a representative of the Montana State Firemen's Association.

Hedstrom gave examples of firefighters across the country killed responding to structure fires not up to code.

"In the fire service we often say that many of our standard operating procedures are written in blood because it took an incident that caused serious injury or death, for us to make changes to the way we do business," Hedstrom said. "The same could be said for building codes."

First Congregational Church also offers overnight shelter but does not directly partner with Family Promise. Cari Boiter, president of the Billings Continuum of Care, worked with a fire marshal to find a solution for one of their spaces, allowing them to shelter 31 people a night—a number Boiter says they reach easily, every night.

"When we talk about all these in-the-weeds things— code compliances and fire issues— we forget about the people," Boiter said. "What we have here at Shelter First is people in wheelchairs, and they need to be able to get out safely in a fire, but they also cannot be on the streets."

The Senate Local Government Committee says it will vote on whether to move the bill forward at a later time.