Misconceptions about homeless lead to false solutions
| January 31, 2023 12:00 AM
Dear Flathead County Board of Commissioners,
Your letter dated Jan. 19 raises an important topic in the Flathead — homelessness. As the board of the Flathead Warming Center, we recognize this is a real challenge faced by our community. We choose to believe your letter came from a place of positive intent; you heard community feedback about poor behavior taking place in Depot Park and you recognized the need for the community to feel safe in their public spaces. We too agree that the behavior in and around the gazebo is unacceptable and needs to stop.
However, by including numerous assumptions and misconceptions (with no supporting data) in your letter, you have done the community a gross disservice by spreading misinformation.
The truth is that there is a growing population of unhoused people in the Flathead Valley for a multitude of reasons. This condition is concentrated and felt most acutely in Kalispell. Those without shelter suffer in many ways. Physical and mental health, work, family, jobs, and simply navigating life are made more difficult without a place to live. This increase in the unhoused population is due to a variety of complex and changing conditions.
Our local housing market has skyrocketed (according to realtor.com, the median home price in the Flathead increased 109% between Jan 2020 and Aug 2022). This has forced rental rates higher than the average wage earner can afford. The Flathead lost several low cost rental options including the Blue and White Motel and the Outlaw Inn which housed many disabled veterans, elderly and marginalized individuals.
Furthermore, mental health resources have been cut. At the FWC, we see this impact very clearly as 70% of our guests self-report having a severe and disabling condition, including mental illnesses such as schizophrenia with paranoia and delusions.
Quality of life in Kalispell is being affected as homeless individuals spend more time in public spaces and engage in a variety of behaviors that push other residents out of parks and pathways. In addition, there is growing strain and expense on community services that are not designed to help unhoused people. The jail, library, public parks, emergency rooms, and lobbies of private businesses become unintended living spaces.
It is important we seek to understand the true underlying causes of homelessness and the impact on our community. Misconceptions lead to false solutions. Shelters do not increase the homeless population and The Warming Center did not bring homelessness to the Flathead. Shelters, including ours, began in response to preexisting homelessness.
We have seen no data to support that “wanderers” from other places are coming here because of our outstanding services. On the contrary, our research shows 78% of warming center guests report having lived in the Flathead for longer than the Flathead Warming Center has existed. In fact, most were born and raised here. Our highest increase in population has been the elderly.
We are dispirited that you have not taken us up on our invitations to visit our facility. We trust that if you spend time with us, you will see that we offer far more than just shelter, and we do hold our guests accountable. We hereby formally invite you again so that you may be fully informed on how we help members of the community.
At the warming center, our mission is to save lives, link resources, and encourage dignity through low-barrier access to a warm, safe place for those in need. In short, the warming center is not expanding homelessness. The center exists to be part of the solution.
How do we do this? We help our neighbors without shelter get the tools and resources they need to move beyond homelessness. We hold them accountable for their behavior and we enforce consequences when they do not adhere to our behavior standards. We may be low-barrier, but that does not mean we tolerate inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Safety is our highest priority. We intentionally do not provide plush accommodations — we are a remodeled garage with thin plastic mattresses on bunk beds in a bunk room — but we do offer kindness, compassion, and practical resources to better each individual’s situation.
When we bring people inside to warmth and safety, we are all safer. When we have 50 people sleeping inside the shelter each night, there are 50 fewer people sleeping outside in locations such as Depot Park. These same people have access to community resources to help them find jobs, access health care, and navigate life.
We realize that no single entity can solve homelessness alone. A challenge of this magnitude will require an unprecedented level of collaboration to find long-lasting solutions. We reiterate our commitment to working with the Flathead County Board of Commissioners, Kalispell City Council, all branches of government, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, social services, and first responders to address this complex and challenging issue. Together we will find solutions that will allow us to keep the Flathead streets and parks clean and safe while also helping our neighbors who need mental health and housing support.
Flathead Warming Center Board of Directors: Luke Heffernan, chair; Darrin Andrews, vice-chair; Haley Barrile, treasurer; Jane Emmert, secretary; Jerie Betschart, Bethany Johnson, Roger Nasset, Jeffrey Scogin, Steve Snipstead, Shirley Willis.