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Harmful rhetoric about homelessness must stop

by Daily Inter Lake
| July 2, 2023 12:00 AM

Scott Bryan’s life mattered, and the allegations of his heinous killing deserve a forceful response. Sadly, nearly a week after his tragic death, we’re still waiting for some elected leaders to speak up.

Court documents say Bryan was beaten to death June 25 behind a gas station on the west side of Kalispell. A cellphone video taken after the alleged attack shows the suspected killer gloating, while the camera pans to a man lying in a pool of blood in a darkened parking lot.

It’s a disturbing visual, made worse by the possibility that the abhorrent act was a part of a string of incidents targeting Kalispell’s homeless population. Kalispell Police previously confirmed to the Inter Lake an investigation into one incident involving a group of teens who allegedly attacked a homeless man near Woodland Park, reportedly breaking his collarbone and leaving him hospitalized. Advocates report that these attacks against homeless individuals have only increased in recent months, and they link the vigilante-style behavior to uninformed and harmful discourse about homelessness.

“We’ve never had violent acts like this toward our homeless community until recently,” Chris Krager, director of the Kalispell homeless shelter Samaritan House, said after Bryan’s alleged killing. “The increased rhetoric by some community leaders and the barrage of aggressive social media comments dehumanize people who live here. It doesn’t take long for verbal assaults to turn physical.”

Krager, of course, is referring in part to an inciting letter penned by Flathead County commissioners in January that pushed misguided narratives about Kalispell’s unhoused residents, and ignored the varying reasons people might experience homelessness.

Bryan’s friends tell us he had only recently resorted to living on the streets and was working with Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana to find permanent housing. According to intake information from the warming center, Bryan was from the Eureka area and suffered from epilepsy and cancer. Nothing about his situation indicates he sought the “homeless lifestyle” commissioners described in their letter.

We implore the commissioners to revisit their position and redirect their influence toward a more compassionate message that acknowledges the myriad factors that lead to homelessness — rising housing costs, addiction, mental health and domestic violence, to name a few. They wield the power to elicit positive change in these areas, while stomping out harmful rhetoric that marginalizes the valley’s most vulnerable residents as others.

It’s also imperative that our elected leaders immediately and vigorously denounce any sort of violence targeting the homeless. Kalispell’s mayor and city councilors, the county commissioners and law enforcement leaders play a critical role in setting the tone of the community. They must speak out against these horrendous allegations or risk enabling similar unruly behavior.

Deafening silence is not leadership — Scott Bryan’s killing cannot go unnoticed.