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Letters to the editor Jan. 24

| January 24, 2023 12:00 AM

What I learned as a shelter volunteer

This week, our county commissioners called for the community to share their experiences with the homeless. I have a strong sense of civic duty. Thus I oblige.

Since October, I’ve volunteered at the Flathead Warming Center. In just over three months, I’ve had more interactions with the homeless population than in all my life before. In that time, I’ve learned some of their stories.

X once caught the game-sealing interception in high school football. X is working out of homelessness to be reunited with their children. X’s family has lived in the Flathead for three generations. X knows how to spot a collector-worthy $2 bill. X can make a quality quesadilla in the microwave. X takes care of a sick parent. X got promoted. X volunteers at the warming center because they were once homeless. X plays a mean game of cribbage.

In hearing their stories, I’ve learned how naive generalizing about the homeless is. To relegate their place to the “parks, streets, and alleys,” or imply they are only seeking a fix, only perpetuates counterproductive stereotypes.

The county commissioners seek accountability from the most downtrodden amongst us. I call for the same from our elected officials. While I agree that “hard conversations solve hard problems,” and that this conversation is long overdue, it’s irresponsible to elicit one on such dehumanizing terms. The commissioners’ letter vilifies the most vulnerable members of our community. They’ve also denounced the very people who care enough to actually help.

Let’s come together to figure out how to better support the people around us who need it most. Solutions will surely take time, and yes, the conversations will be hard. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people. Let’s be better than our county commissioners.

— Sonny Mazzullo, Kalispell

They are ‘us’

The Flathead County Commissioner’s letter regarding the unhoused in our community suggests that “providing homeless infrastructure” focuses on “enabling” individuals. They claim that opening an additional shelter in our community attracted homeless “wanderers” and imply that homeless are not part of “us,” therefore we should be against “them.”

Statistics, gathered by local shelters indicate that a significant portion of the current shelter guests have lived in the Flathead Valley over five years. They are “us.” As in any community, some people behave better than others, but that doesn’t mean we group people together and reject them. It means we enforce existing laws and create better supports.

None of us may fully understand the nuances of how and why a person ends up unhoused, but we do know that a national affordable housing crisis, post-Covid, has significantly increased the number of individuals who have lost housing due to dramatically increased rent and housing costs. Those on the low end of the income spectrum, especially those on a fixed income or with mental health and addiction issues were understandably most vulnerable.

I am confident, as our community joins together to find solutions, we will act with compassion and kindness, not judgment.

The commissioners ask the community to “be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle.” Instead, may we work to provide solutions.

Providing services and resources is not about enabling, it’s about empowering individuals to find a better life.

Decreasing funding or support for those who are unhoused will further burden our jails and emergency rooms because people are desperate to get in out of the cold. Ask the Commissioners to join forces with those who will work toward a compassionate solution instead of spreading misinformation. Together we can keep the Flathead beautiful and welcoming for all of us.

— Jane Latus Emmert, Whitefish

Let’s be better

I was stunned as I read the letter from the Flathead County Board of Commissioners Brad Abell, Randy Brodehl, and Pamela Holmquist. Summarizing the letter in my own words, it read like this:

“Dear Flathead County residents, homelessness is increasing in our valley, and we’re basically asking for it. Without naming any specific organizations, we’re going to make it clear to you that the Flathead Warming Center and the intricate social grapevine of the homeless community is largely responsible for this increase. Let’s forget about the dramatic influx of people moving to the valley in the last several years, the increasing rent prices, and severe lack of housing currently available. Those factors aren’t relevant at all in this conversation.

Instead, you need to believe these completely unsupported facts: homelessness is nearly always a choice. The Warming Center is making the problem worse. And by assisting the homeless community or the Warming Center in any way, you are part of the problem.”

This letter calling our community to withdraw its support of the Flathead Warming Center and homeless population might seem like a solution to some, but it poses more problems than solutions to me. It sounds like a call to continue to ignore all elements other than “choice” that have forced individuals from their houses onto the streets. It sounds like a call to disregard the personal stories and unique situations of individuals who are homeless. It sounds like a call for our community to tell those who are homeless to pack up and move out, because they are some other town’s problem. Not ours.

How can we, in good moral conscience, ever expect to solve a humanitarian issue if we are viewing another human being as a problem instead of a person? Let’s be better than this.

— Serena Koch, Kalispell

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