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Kalispell city manager outlines plans to address homeless presence in parks

Daily Inter Lake | June 7, 2023 12:00 AM

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell announced a package of new measures meant to dissuade homeless people from congregating in public spaces during Monday’s City Council meeting.

Russell said the city would install bars on benches meant to deter people from sleeping on them, disconnect electricity and water at city parks, and consider housing law enforcement in the Depot Park building downtown.

Russell made mention of ordinances passed by the Council in February that restricted use of park facilities in an attempt to dissuade homeless people from gathering in city parks, but said that he has continued to receive calls and emails from residents complaining about homeless activity in public spaces.

Russell also pitched the idea of relocating the Police Department to the city-owned Depot Park building to address residents’ safety concerns. The building is currently leased to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President Lorraine Clarno confirmed this month that the group is set to move out of the building — a former Great Northern Railroad Depot on the National Register of Historic Places — in part because of safety concerns related to homeless activity in the surrounding park.

Russell said that he took inspiration from other cities that have installed bars designed to make laying on benches uncomfortable in the hopes that the retrofitted benches would stop people from sleeping on them “all day.”

“[These are] things that we can put in place that doesn’t bring in more people to congregate there throughout multiple hours of the day,” Russell said.

He said that the most the city could do to address resident complaints about the homeless presence in municipal parks was further restrict access to amenities such as water and modify benches.

“There’s nothing against the law for people to be there,” Russell said. “So you can’t enforce someone being present in public space. What you try to avoid is that congregation.”

Councilor Ryan Hunter criticized the proposals.

“I see these efforts in Depot Park as reactive policy,” Hunter said. “We were here a few months ago talking about measures given the Depot Park situation. I didn’t think those measures would address the issue and the problem, and here we are months later and they didn’t. These also won’t address the issue. [If] they don’t sleep on the bench, they’ll sleep on the grass. It’s legal for people to be in the park, to congregate in the park, and we shouldn’t try to dissuade particular individuals that we don’t want there.”

Homelessness policy experts have followed similar trends across the country, and argue that this kind of enforcement can create a cycle that exacerbates the symptoms of visible homelessness while making public land less enjoyable overall.

“These efforts create a circular effect of shutting down bathrooms and removing trash cans and then people become smellier and trash builds up. It creates more triggers for disgust [among the public],” said Eric Tars, Legal Director for the National Homelessness Law Center.

“Why do we need a race to the bottom where nobody can enjoy these things?” Tars asked. “The fundamental misconception is that homeless people aren’t part of the community who deserve to use public spaces.”

Russell said the ordinances such as the one prohibiting the erection of structures in public parks are working. He compared Kalispell’s efforts to address homelessness with those of other cities statewide.

“Look around the state [at municipalities] that are being forced to do encampment cleanups because they allowed structures to be built,” Russell said.

Hunter also resisted the proposal to relocate city police to the Depot Park building, an area he described as “the living room” of the Kalispell community.

“I’m reluctant with the idea of a Police Department in our most centrally located visible place in our community,” Hunter said. “I would like to see something that’s more available to the public than a police station in our central living room.”

“I’m not opposed to a policeman sitting in our living room,” replied Mayor Mark Johnson.

Johnson said that he wanted to see other Flathead County communities provide social services. Johnson has previously said that taking care of homelessness should fall on families, nonprofit organizations and religious groups.

“I challenge the other communities to get off the dime and do something,” Johnson said. “I keep hearing how Kalispell is the center for all services. Well, the other communities can provide services as well, because we have a lot of people in this county hurting. There’s only so much that we can take. So I just urge people that if you know someone who’s homeless, if you know someone who’s a family member that’s homeless, the best resource is getting those homeless people back in with family. Family is the original support structure, and that’s what we need to lean on.”

COUNCIL ALSO approved a conditional use permit for a child care center operated by Immanuel Lutheran Communities at Northridge Lutheran Church. They included a requirement for the addition of sidewalk along the property that Immanuel requested waived because it would eat into their limited budget for the expansion project. The nonprofit received a fixed amount of federal funds to relocate and expand the education center.

Council also approved the annexation and residential zoning of the Mountain Villa apartment complex at 249 Reserve Place. The annexation would allow the development to link up to city water and sewer infrastructure, but neighbors spoke in opposition, citing fears of future development and changing traffic conditions.

Finally, Council renewed a 90-day emergency water conservation ordinance that would give the Department of Public Works authority to implement irrigation restrictions during periods of high demand. The same law was in effect last summer, though the department never triggered watering restrictions.

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at aknowler@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.