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Plan to rein in homeless activity deserves scrutiny

by Daily Inter Lake
| June 11, 2023 12:00 AM

Ongoing challenges with homeless activity in Kalispell’s public spaces became the center of discussion last week after the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce said it intends to move out of its location adjacent to Depot Park.

While the chamber has been looking for new digs for more than a year, safety concerns related to homeless people gathering in the park sped up the organization’s timeline to move out. Staff plans to work remotely beginning this week until a new office is secured.

Seizing on that news, Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell rolled out a vision to potentially move the Kalispell Police Department into the Great Northern Railway Depot building, alongside other methods to dissuade homeless activity in public spaces. Among them, Russell said the city could install bars on benches to keep people from sleeping on them, or even turn off power and water at public parks.

Russell’s intent with these proposals is understandable. There are amplifying concerns within the community about the presence of homeless people in the city, and officials are under pressure to do something — anything — to rein in activity that prevents the broad enjoyment of Kalispell’s public spaces.

Nonetheless, Russell’s platter of options begged for further inquiry and analysis, and unfortunately at last week’s meeting there was scant questioning or discussion from city councilors.

If Kalispell is serious about acting on these ideas, here’s what elected officials and residents should be asking about taxpayer funding, logistics and perceived benefits:

What is the cost to refurbish the former depot into a suitable facility for law enforcement that is equipped with modern safety features and capable technology? Is the plan to demolish the structure and build new at the historic site? If so, is Depot Park the ideal location for such an ambitious project?

Does moving police headquarters, or even establishing a substation, at a location with blatant ingress and egress challenges, and limited parking makes sense? Would it be an improvement over the current police department facility?

If deterring homeless activity at Depot Park is the premise of relocating the police station, would it make more sense to allocate taxpayer funds toward additional officers who could more adequately enforce the city’s new ordinances regarding public spaces?

Cutting off water and electricity might discourage homeless activity, but would it also deter residents and visitors from enjoying Kalispell’s fantastic public parks and playgrounds? Is a family less likely to visit Lawrence Park if there are no water fountains or bathrooms with flushing toilets and sinks?

Installing bars on benches is probably of minimal cost and effort, but would it actually achieve the intended purpose? Wouldn’t a homeless person just find another public place to nap or set up camp?

At last week’s meeting, Russell made the point that the city must be proactive in taking steps to limit homeless activity and ensure Kalispell’s public areas can be safely enjoyed by all residents.

At the same time, it’s incumbent upon city councilors to properly vet these proposals so city officials don’t fall into the trap of doing something for the sake of public appeasement. Councilors must set the city on a path of proactive measures that are meaningful and mindful of taxpayer funds and unintended consequences.