BILLINGS - It's a mad dash to find housing for many people using the Montana Emergency Rental Program.
While the program has enough money to float renters for an unknown amount of time, already people without enough money are facing eviction.
People like the Deaguero family of Billings.
"Right now we're living in a motel room at Motel 6 North in Billings," says Taylor Deaguero.
Deaguero and her family, including her husband, two children, and five pets, have been staying at the Motel 6 for almost four months, but she's afraid their time in the motel is running out.
"I'm currently working full-time. My husband's disabled. As of now, we're trying to get accepted again for the MERA program," Deaguero says.
Since receiving nearly $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, the Montana Department of Commerce has paid out more than $120 million to more than 13,000 households across the state through the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance program (MERA).
One option MERA provided people, was a hotel stay for up to 18 months — paid out by the state. But the program was never meant to be permanent.
In January 2023, the state announced MERA would stop taking new applicants, and in mid-March, a second announcement said the state would stop taking applications by March 24.
Applications received on or before that deadline will be reviewed and processed, and the state will continue dolling out money until the money is used up.
The department says it pays out about $7 million a month and there is about $35 million left in the pot.
Mitch Staley with the Montana Department of Commerce is firm in saying there is no timeline for how long MERA will continue to be distributed, as the U.S. Treasury Department could shift some program parameters.
City leaders and homeless advocates in Billings say more than 1,000 people are living in local hotels paid for by MERA and the expiration of the funds poses one of the biggest crises the city will face this year.
"It's really gonna be a problem for our community of a magnitude I don't think we've experienced before," says Kari Boiter, a board member with the Yellowstone County Continuum of Care.
"Our shelter just so happens to close at the end of April, so the funding that the city has generously given us for sheltering people this winter will run out at the same time that these folks will inevitably, all of them, be exited out of the MERA," Boiter said.
The Deaguero family worries their eviction is coming soon, as they are one of many applicants that owe back rent — money that will be paid out directly to the motel by the Department of Commerce. But their application is still processing.
"We'll be trying to find somewhere to go. More than likely it will be our car," Deaguero said.
The Deaguero family has been homeless off and on since 2018. Taylor Deaguero and her husband, Jesse, said their ideal situation would be in a mobile home park that accepts pets and a budget of around $1,000/month.
For anyone still on MERA, the Department of Commerce urges them to make a plan for when the pandemic-era program ends.
They're pointing people to Montana Housing and a variety of resources it offers, found here.
Through Montana Housing, MERA recipients can apply to the Housing Choice Voucher (known as Section 8) waitlists by clicking hereand clicking "APPLY NOW".
Additional options include applying for a Project Based Section 8 or Low-Income Housing Tax Credit affordable property. Details for these properties are available here and here (select “Current list of Tax Credit Properties”).
A variety of additional resources for individuals, families and seniors are linked here.
Search available housing listings here.
Finally, Montana 211 can connect individuals with community resources, services and assistance, including identifying options for housing and shelter needs.