Commissioners blame shelters for homeless problem
A man panhandles in Columbia Falls in this 2011 file photo.
| January 25, 2023 1:20 PM
Flathead County commissioners issued a letter last week criticizing homeless services organizations and calling upon residents to deny homeless people help or support.
In the letter, signed by commissioners Pam Holmquist, Brad Abell, and Randy Brodehl, the trio claim nonprofits catering to homeless people have led to an increase in homelessness in the valley. They argue that charities and individuals providing homeless people with money or other support likewise contribute to a “distressing problem.”
“If we continue to enable the homeless population, then those numbers will increase,” reads the letter.
The commissioners call it a “simple truth” that shelters are causing homeless people to migrate to the area, though they offered no evidence in the letter to support the claim. The commissioners did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
They pointed to a correlation between the opening of a low barrier shelter and a “dramatic increase in homeless individuals.” While not specifically named the Flathead Warming Center that opened in 2020 is the only low barrier shelter in the community.
They further claim that a “progressive network” is conspiring to bring in other homeless people from elsewhere, again providing no evidence.
County Administrator Pete Melnick on Friday said that the commissioners are making the claims about “well-networked wanderers” based on evidence provided by Whitefish Police Chief Bridger Kelch.
Kelch also did not respond to requests to provide evidence substantiating the claims.
The letter comes only days after Kalispell city officials closed the Depot Park gazebo and Woodland Park pavilion to the public after receiving resident complaints about a concentrated presence of homeless people in the parks.
Tonya Horn, director of the Flathead Warming Center, said the letter is grossly misinformed on the causes of homelessness and the origins of the county’s homeless population. Horn has conducted surveys at the shelter and said that the results show that almost all their clients are from the Flathead Valley.
“They have opinions that they are stating as fact,” Horn said of the commissioners. “These are the kinds of opinions that really hurt our efforts to help our neighbors.”
Horn has extended multiple offers to the commissioners to tour the shelter, as well as sit down with them to educate them about the underlying issues and the Warming Center’s efforts to help.
She said that she has not received a response to her invitations. In the letter, the commissioners wrote that they believe “hard conversations solve hard problems.”
The commissioners also called upon Flathead residents to “make it clear to this networked homeless community that ‘enough is enough.’” Horn said she was afraid the commissioners’ request puts homeless people’s safety at greater risk, and that if her clients read the letter they would feel “targeted” and “hopeless.”
She said she doesn’t think the letter represents the majority of the community’s sentiments, pointing to the shelter’s donations and volunteer rates as evidence.
Kalispell City Councilor Ryan Hunter felt the letter is off the mark.
“I think it’s incredibly misinformed and lacks basic empathy and compassion for our neighbors,” Hunter said.
Increases in housing prices and rent are to blame for the rise in homelessness, Hunter said.
“As elected officials it’s incumbent upon us to become informed in these issues by talking to the experts, instead of going off of preconceived notions,” he said.
Hunter said the claim that homeless people are moving to the area in any significant way is a “persistent myth.”
Horn and other experts think that the solution requires “supportive housing,” which would match chronically homeless people with social workers who can help them address mental health and substance abuse challenges as well as putting a roof over their head.
Hunter said he’d like to see Kalispell donate parking lots downtown to nonprofits to build “permanent, supportive, deed-restricted affordable housing.”
Asked if any policies or proposals were in the works, Melnick said the commissioners are “not working on solutions to address homelessness in the valley.”