Innovation Spotlight: United Way of Yellowstone County

We created our Partnerships for Better Health Focus Area to support innovative projects and new partnerships. The goal for these projects is to find creative ways to use existing resources more efficiently to improve health across Montana.

This month, we are highlighting United Way of Yellowstone County and the new partnership they created to address homelessness and substance abuse.

Yellowstone County has long-standing challenges related to substance abuse. A shortage of safe, affordable housing compounds this problem because homelessness makes recovering from a substance use disorder far more difficult. In a new innovative partnership, United Way of Yellowstone County developed, strengthened, and brought together two separate coalitions to collaborate on this costly and complicated issue.

United Way of Yellowstone County is a community-building organization in South Central Montana specializing in fostering secure community networks. As part of their crisis stabilization work, they brought over 100 community groups together to combine resources around shared goals. In 2017, they formed the Substance Abuse Connect Coalition to coordinate community efforts to address the impacts of substance use disorders. With the help of community leaders, they also strengthened the Billings Continuum of Care to re-imagine the community’s approach to homelessness.

United Way of Yellowstone County recognized the overlap between the goals of the two coalitions and the population they were working to serve. It imagined that by developing a working partnership between the two coalitions, they could pool resources, share data, and make significant progress in reducing substance abuse and homelessness.

With the help of a one-year, $50,000 grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation, the coalitions began the challenging task of strengthening and aligning themselves for sustainable collaboration.

As part of the project, each coalition began by completing a needs and resource assessment. This planning helped them better understand what their collective needs were and what resources they could share. Then, they created a strategic plan for reducing homelessness and substance abuse, along with a governance structure for implementing the plan. With a plan in place, the coalitions developed a shared data platform to guide and track their activities.

“The power created from these agencies joining forces is a game-changer for Yellowstone County. Together, we are tackling complex problems that cannot be solved alone. These coalitions are not only changing individual lives, but are also creating a stronger community and saving taxpayer dollars.”

– Dean Wells, United Way of Yellowstone County Interim Director of Strategy and Impact

By laying a strong foundation for collaboration, the coalitions were able to leverage the Montana Healthcare Foundation’s grant to secure additional funds to advance their efforts.

They received over $1 million from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, $200,000 in County Matching Grant funds, and $70,000 in local donations. These grants are being used to establish diversion and treatment services, like a community crisis line, a mobile crisis response team, and training for law enforcement and first responders in de-escalation strategies. More information on what is being done to address substance use disorders through this funding can be found here.

They also received a second grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation to participate in the Housing is Health Care Initiative. This grant will help them work towards establishing permanent supportive housing services for people in Billings with complex medical needs who are homeless.

An unanticipated benefit of this work to align efforts among coalition members using the Montana Healthcare Foundation’s grant came during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the Continuum of Care Coalition members worked on the front lines of the pandemic response, and the emergency impacted them greatly. In response to the crisis, the newly strengthened coalition was able to come together to support members, combine resources, and speak with a unified voice.

This innovative coalition partnership demonstrates the benefits of aligning resources among diverse partners to achieve a shared goal. For more information about these coalitions and their work, please visit unitedwayyellowstone.org.

Coalition members participating in a planning session.