Saturday, June 10, 2023

Officials should follow compassion rather than stigmatizing unhoused

| January 22, 2023 12:00 AM

Flathead County commissioners last week sent a clear message that homeless individuals are not welcome in our community, while also imploring other elected officials to not aid those who look to serve these individuals.

Commissioners, in a letter, claim that “providing homeless infrastructure” will result in more homeless individuals in our community. They go so far as to claim that shelters have resulted in a dramatic increase in homelessness and ask that the community become “unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle.”

It seems as though the county commissioners are incapable of showing compassion or caring for fellow human beings who happen to be unhoused.

A position that seeks to stigmatize anyone, and in this instance homeless individuals, is not one that should be abided. Furthermore, the position taken by commissioners in the letter speaks to a disconnect between the elected officials and the county that they claim to serve. Finding housing has become an uphill battle for many amidst the increasing cost of rent and lack of affordable housing options. Occasionally, the only option left is the street.

While the commissioners may not support the work done by local shelters, vilifying those assisting their neighbors in a time of need speaks to an uncalled for level of animosity.

The commissioners cited the receipt of “numerous complaints of an increasing and distressing problem in our valley” as the reason for their call to inaction.

COMPLAINTS ALSO drove a decision by Kalispell city officials last week to rope off the gazebo in Depot Park along with similar structures at Woodland Park.

City officials say the closures are the result of complaints over homeless people using the structure. To buttress the move, officials referenced reports of alcohol consumption in the park in violation of city law. They cited the leaving of human waste and garbage in the area as growing concerns.

While the parks remain open to the public, closing the gazebo indefinitely limits public access for everyone wanting to use the park’s amenities, including those who follow rules and regulations. Action is warranted here, but on the other hand the city doesn’t throw up Jersey barriers when motorists fail to obey the rules of the road, a routine sight on Kalispell’s streets.

The move to close the gazebo seems hasty, at the least. Although city staff is expected to bring several new ordinances before Council on Monday to address the problem, implementing those regulations will take around 45 days. Meanwhile, the structures will sit behind netting and no trespassing signs.

Worse than the temporary pain felt by Kalispell’s housed residents, closing the structures smacks of othering the homeless individuals who have sought shelter in the gazebo. These are people, a fact that unfortunately occasionally needs reminding of, and they deserve the same dignity and respect we give our housed neighbors.

On a practical note, closing the gazebo doesn’t do anything to assist homeless individuals or ameliorate the problem of homelessness locally. As Tonya Horn, director of the Flathead Warming Center, points out, the move falls well short of addressing the underlying causes of homelessness.

It merely seeks to make a — hopefully small — segment of the public feel better by shielding them from seeing homelessness up close. Homelessness, after all, is not a prerequisite for public alcohol consumption, littering or any other crime or public nuisance.

We implore officials to work more closely with the organizations that serve homeless individuals rather than displacing them and casting them out of public view.

Furthermore, we beseech all public officials to have empathy for our entire community — housed or not.

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