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Focus on solutions when discussing homelessness

by Daily Inter Lake
| April 7, 2024 12:00 AM

Kalispell City Council is expected to take a look at some of the challenges surrounding homelessness in the city at an upcoming work session.

Councilor Chad Graham suggested the meeting as a way to hone in on some complaints raised by business owners and residents near the Flathead Warming Center. Graham said he’s fielded myriad concerns, ranging from physical assaults and threats, to unsightly behaviors that have had a negative impact on the area surrounding the North Meridian low-barrier shelter.

Given these reports, convening a meeting with the Council, city residents and Warming Center stakeholders is absolutely warranted. It’s important that the City Council is engaged on the topic of homelessness and receptive to its constituents’ feedback, particularly those who are most affected.

However, Graham specifically asked to revisit the conditional use permit issued to the Warming Center in 2020. City Manager Doug Russell said that while the work session discussion is proper, he advised that anything further would “probably take it into that quasi-judicial arena,” meaning the council could be interpreting and enforcing existing rules and possibly determining whether to suspend or revoke a license or permit.

Given that warning, it’s important for the Council to consider the facts of the center’s conditional use permit and whether any of the complaints about homelessness align with the nine conditions set out during the approval vote.

A review of the permits shows that all of the conditions set by the Council relate to basic building and zoning standards. They mandate that building permits are obtained, ample parking is provided, that a sidewalk is extended and that occupancy is limited to 40 people, among other basic requirements. 

To be clear, there is no condition of the permit regarding the off-site behavior of the Warming Center’s guests.

This doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate to hold a public conversation about how homelessness is affecting Kalispell. It just means that the conversation should be more holistic, and not solely framed around the center’s permit.

Warming Center officials themselves are also concerned about how homelessness is affecting the community, and they too are eager to be a part of  the work session discussion.

“Some people in our area are displaying poor and alarming behaviors that are not acceptable,” Warming Center officials wrote in a media release Friday. “In fact, these same unacceptable behaviors are happening throughout Kalispell. For that reason, the voices of our neighbors — and the community at large — all need to be heard. Our community has asked the city of Kalispell to be a part of the solution.”

Warming Center officials continued that pointing fingers at the people working with the homeless population won’t lead to positive results.

“Homelessness has become divisive and political when it should be a humanitarian issue,” they wrote.

The Council should heed that notion when gathering for its upcoming work session discussion — steer clear of divisiveness and focus on solutions that benefit the entire city.