When Myra Fromm and her husband of 25 years split up last spring, the 42-year-old and her three teenage children found themselves homeless and living in the family car.
"I was devastated—shocked at first, then devastated," Fromm says.
The family had sold their home in New York, paid off their bills and moved to Montana last November. Fromm planned on staying with her husband's mother until the couple found a permanent home, but it didn't play out that way. She says her husband left her with the kids, and she could no longer stay with her mother-in-law after the separation. That's when she and her children began sleeping in their four-door Kia Spectra sedan.
"It was chilly. A couple of nights were really cold...Wal-Mart's really good," she says, describing one regular camping spot for the family. "But it's hard to sleep because there are so many bright lights."
Fromm sought help from YWCA in Missoula, the only local emergency-housing program that consistently shelters families. The YWCA's 50-day program offers 10 rented hotel rooms and typically has a four- to six-week waiting list. With no other options, Fromm signed up and waited. The family spent nearly two months living in their car until a room eventually opened up.
Fromm's is one of an increasing number of families going without shelter in Missoula. According to data compiled by the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, 92 heads of household reported going without shelter last January—a 30 percent rise from 2009. The increased demand has strained social service agencies.
"Families really sometimes fall through the cracks," says Katharina Werner from the YWCA's Gateway Program, which provides assistance to parents and children seeking shelter and case management for those on the emergency housing program's waiting list.
Just last week Werner met with six homeless families that need help. In addition to the 50-day program, YWCA offers one-night hotel vouchers on a limited basis. But Werner says the voucher program offers only a temporary fix and funding is finite.
There are no other shelters in Missoula equipped to immediately handle families like Fromm's. For instance, the Poverello Center shelters only adults. The Pov's transitional housing program for families, Joseph's Residence, has a waiting list that generally runs several months. And Mountain Home Montana, which serves mothers ages 16–24, received 92 referrals for the program's six beds last year.
Social service providers say the problem is poised to get worse before it gets better. At the end of this month, when a temporary funding stream into the YWCA runs out, the nonprofit will be forced to eliminate three of its 10 hotel rooms for the 50-night program.
"We're going to notice that a ton," Werner says.
While the numbers look bleak, some relief could be on the way. Aiming to fill the growing gap in services, Chaplain Cathy Scribner from Hospice of Missoula is asking the Missoula Ministerial Organization, comprised of dozens of local churches, to combine its collective resources and weave a safety net capable of catching families before they fall through the cracks.
Scribner proposes creating a Family Promise affiliate in Missoula. The model is based on independent Family Promise shelters in 41 states and draws upon church resources to provide counseling, childcare, food and shelter to get families back on their feet. Though faith-based, Family Promise partners are forbidden from proselytizing, Scribner says. She aims to get the program up and running within the next year.
"We just need the churches to get on board," she says.
In the meantime, Fromm is left to make due with what she has. While waiting to get into the YWCA emergency housing program, she and her three children relied on their car for shelter. Her youngest, ages 15 and 17, slept in the back seat. Fromm and her 18-year-old son took the front. They ate bagged lunches from the Poverello Center and washed in fast food restaurant bathrooms. Fromm tried to stay positive for her kids, framing the situation as an adventure rather than a crisis.
It wasn't always easy. One night, as the family slept in the car at the California Street Bridge, Fromm awoke to a man outside her window. Spooked, she started the car and quietly drove away, not wanting to upset her children.
"I felt like a bad mom; I couldn't take care of my family...I try to show them that I am strong. I don't let them see my emotions as much, because I don't need them to worry about me," she says.
Her family finally got into the YWCA's emergency housing program last month. They have a motel room until July 30.
"What happens after that, I don't know," Fromm says. "If I don't find housing, then I'll have to go back to living in my car."
Fromm now totes around a binder full of job applications along with information on state and federal assistance. She says she filled out 13 applications for employment last week alone. Despite her personal frustration, she remains upbeat, preferring to introduce a little lightheartedness to her situation.
"At least we had a car," she says. "Can you imagine if we didn't have a car? I mean thank God for Kia."