Hard conversations about homelessness
| April 9, 2023 12:00 AM
There’s been no shortage of opinions on the Flathead Valley’s homeless population since the Flathead County commissioners penned a letter in January that set the conversation into motion.
State legislators, local business owners, law enforcement, nonprofit leaders and valley residents have all chimed in with varying reactions to the letter that called on the community to stop aiding what the commissioners described as the “homeless lifestyle.” Providing services such as shelter, the commissioners contend, only attracts homeless people to the area.
“Make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some,” the commissioners wrote.
For some, yes.
For most, it’s just not that simple.
Daily Inter Lake reporter Adrian Knowler discovered as much after spending a night at the Flathead Warming Center last month. Officials with the low-barrier shelter in Kalispell had invited us to send a reporter to speak with individuals who utilize the facility — after all, what better way to learn about the homeless population and understand their circumstances than by actually speaking directly to those affected.
Here’s what we learned from that experience.
First, the Warming Center shouldn’t be confused with anything more than a bare bones shelter. The bunk-style accommodations offer a safe alternative to sleeping on the street in the cold winter months, and that’s about it. There’s no extra frills, and zero tolerance for poor behavior, alcohol or drug use. To suggest it’s some sort of Hilton for transients simply is not true. It’s lights out by 10 p.m., and everyone is on their way by daylight.
More importantly, we learned about the widely varying reasons people might need to stay at the shelter.
Christina, a Flathead Valley local who became homeless after a divorce, said she’s unable to work due to health issues. She stayed at the shelter five nights a week through the winter as her only alternative to sleeping on the streets.
Meanwhile, Vicki lost her job as a caregiver but says she’s too proud to ask her children for help. “This is something I am dealing with,” she said. At 60 years old, it’s the first time she’s faced homelessness.
Isaiah said that while he has been able to secure a decent job, entering the local housing market has proven to be a challenge. Likewise, Janet works full time but can’t secure an apartment due to soaring rent costs and a past eviction on her record.
One person who spoke to the Inter Lake shared that he was dealing with mental health issues but wasn’t willing to seek help, while others pointed to drugs and alcoholism as obstacles they’ve not been able to overcome.
Isaac, another Kalispell native, said alcoholism led to his situation, and that he was not looking for sympathy or any other assistance.
“I don’t really like telling people I’m homeless because it makes them feel sorry for me,” he said. “It’s frankly embarrassing. I put myself in this predicament and I can take myself out.”
In a Dec. 26, 2022 email to the Flathead County commissioners, Warming Center Executive Director Tonya Horn sounded the alarm on the prevalence of people staying at the shelter facing mental health issues and addiction.
“What we are seeing inside the Warming Center is scary,” Horn wrote in the email obtained by the Inter Lake through a public records request. “We have not been successful in getting the help (for individuals) that we must have.”
Horn gave the commissioners an agonizing example of one homeless man dealing with serious mental and physical health issues — his toes were rotting away due to frostbite after sleeping outside. She detailed the extent to which Warming Center staff attempted to help this individual, only to meet roadblock after roadblock.
“We are failing our mentally ill,” Horn wrote. “I understand that we lack resources, but we must all do better.”
The commissioners’ letter was made public Jan. 19, just a few weeks later.
They ended their message by saying “hard conversations solve hard problems.”
Let us add that, going forward, any conversations about homelessness must be based on reality — not hearsay and harmful stereotypes. The valley’s homeless population isn’t what the commissioners portray — it’s far more nuanced than a “lifestyle.”
Support for mental health and addiction services needs vast improvement if we are going to make headway on the homeless crisis. What can the county and state, and private health care sector do to bring more robust services to our area?
Finding stable housing continues to be an insurmountable obstacle for some — even those who are gainfully employed. How can we better help people bridge the gap between living on the streets or at a shelter, and having a place to call home?
These are the hard conversations at hand. Let’s meet them head on.