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The Longest Night in Montana, and the Longest List

December 21, 2011

HELENA, Mont. - Thirty-seven names will be read today at events in Helena, Billings and Kalispell for Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. That's how many Montanans died in the past year because of issues related to homelessness - the highest number since the day was first commemorated in the state.

Sherri Downing, president of the Montana Coalition for the Homeless, says there are clear solutions - but they're tough ones in this political climate.

"We really need additional, affordable, accessible housing that doesn't screen people out; affordable, accessible health care; and we need living-wage jobs."

People without permanent housing die about 30 years sooner than average, she says.

Homelessness in frontier areas looks different than the big-city stereotype. Chris Krager , executive director of Samaritan House in Kalispell, describes it as people living in trucks, tents, barns and sheds. He says that rough life takes a toll.

"Maybe related to the elements; lack of access to health care. It seems kind of like the odds are stacked - a difficult scenario."

The memorial day is always held on the first day of winter - which is also the longest night of the year. Today's memorial events will be held from noon to 1 p.m. at Women's Park in Helena, on the courthouse lawn in Billings, and in Depot Park in Kalispell.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MT