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Kalispell's homeless report string of attacks

by ADRIAN KNOWLER
Daily Inter Lake | May 31, 2023 12:00 AM

Members of Kalispell’s homeless community and the social workers who serve them are reporting an uptick in harassment and violence in city parks.

One attack earlier this month left a man hospitalized with a broken collarbone, according to Audrey Tri, operations director at the Flathead Warming Center, a local shelter and resource center for the homeless.

Kalispell Police confirmed that the department is investigating at least one incident related to the reports of attacks in Woodland Park.

Shelter-goers have reported a pattern of harassment and violence by local teens, describing incidents such as beatings, thrown rocks, harassment and the grabbing of personal property such as cell phones and clothing. Bryan Bergeson said he was present for two attacks the weekend of May 20, late on Friday and Saturday nights.

According to Bergeson, a group of at least six people — he described them as teenagers — approached him and his friends Friday. They exposed themselves to the women, tried to take their cell phones and attempted to abduct a dog.

Police responded, he said, although the perpetrators got away.

The next night, Bergeson said he was assaulted by a group of three people in the park, and hit on the side of the head. Since the attack, he has had vision problems in his left eye, and is seeing what he describes as white blotches.

“I think he had a rock,” Bergeson said.

Bergeson said he believed that a group of teenagers was responsible for the attacks. He said he has seen them hanging out by a nearby grocery store on multiple occasions, and that they are known to harass homeless people.

He hopes that the kids will stop harassing homeless people and worries that the situation may escalate if nothing changes.

“They’ve gotten away with it so far, they’re taking it to the next level,” he said. “They might not be done if nothing happens to them.”

He saw a connection between posts disparaging homeless people put up on local social media sites and the increase in harassment.

Kurt Pitcher said many of his friends have suffered attacks, although he hasn’t seen the group of teens on nights he has been in Woodland Park. Pitcher said he has emergency medical technician training and has treated friends for injuries such as broken ribs. He even put 13 stitches in someone’s face after an attack, he recalled.

Many in the homeless community are afraid to seek care at the emergency department, Pitcher said.

Cory Nylander said he was awoken early in the morning of May 22 by a group of four people when they pulled off his blanket and kicked him. He said they grabbed his shoes and told him “get the hell out of here,” all while blinding him with phone flashlights that obscured their faces.

Bryan Lamme said that he and some friends were barbecuing in a Woodland Park pavilion on May 16 when a group of teens started throwing rocks at them.

The next night, Lamme was accosted by a group of eight kids yelling homophobic slurs.

He’s seen an increase in such incidents in the last several months, and attributes the change to a tone set by county leaders.

“No kids were messing with us before the [county commissioners’] letter was published in the newspaper,” he said.

County officials, though, disputed any connection.

“I don’t see a correlation between [the commissioners’ letter that] came out in February and what is happening [now],” said Flathead County spokesperson Kim Grieser.

Grieser acknowledged anti-homeless rhetoric on social media, but said that it is a reflection of how the community feels about the issue.

“There's been a lot of hate speech online but I don't think it’s necessarily related to that letter,” she said, pointing to police responses to what she described as encampments in Depot Park and along the Rails-to-Trails system.

Commissioner Randy Brodehl said he was not aware of any harassment of homeless people. Homeless people, he said, are responsible for violence in Kalispell.

“I have no knowledge of people in our community harassing people who are homeless,” he said in a statement. “The reality is we have daily acts of violence by vagrants against each other, and against our community. The tolerance of these acts of lawlessness by citizens is commendable. However, this lawlessness is consuming our public safety resources and our taxpayers dollars everyday.”

The commissioners, he said, do not condone violence on anyone.

Brodehl said that the county is taking action to alleviate the problems by adding public safety staff, hiring private security, increasing patrols in county parks and asking the community to stop contributing to panhandlers.

Audrey Tri, the warming center’s operations manager, said that many in the homeless community are afraid to report incidents to police and feel that they are looked down on by residents.

“They feel like a waste of space, like throwaways,” she said. “It’s a hopeless life and [they’re] treated terribly.”

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