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Residents pack Kalispell City Hall to debate fate of Flathead Warming Center

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | May 15, 2024 12:00 AM

Owing to incidents of loitering, trespassing and a general uneasiness since the opening of the nearby Flathead Warming Center in 2021, Michelle Davey said her North Meridian Road employer installed a panic button in the front office earlier this year.

“It shouldn't be that way, that's not the way it was supposed to be,” Davey said.

Davey was one of dozens of speakers to attend a Kalispell City Council work session on whether to revoke, amend or leave as-is the low-barrier shelter’s conditional use permit, which Council approved in 2020. The gathering came at the behest of City Councilor Chad Graham, who has argued in recent weeks that the Warming Center has reneged on promises made during the permit application process.  

Graham requested the meeting in April, citing allegations of criminal activity, disorderly conduct and littering by nearby residents and business owners.  

“I asked for this, and wow,” Graham said as over 100 people tried to cram into Council Chambers. The crowd eventually overflowed into the adjoining hallway. 

Following Graham’s request, city staff produced a series of heat maps showing the amount of 911 calls in various half mile radiuses around Kalispell for both before and after the Warming Center opened. 

Since 2020, city wide calls for service regarding trespassing, disorderly conduct, welfare checks and criminal mischief have increased by 51%. Calls in the area around the Warming Center have increased by 97.3% in that same period. 

Areas around Depot Park and the Kalispell branch of the Flathead County Library similarly have seen increases in calls. 

The data presented also showed increases in calls near the shelter during the months when it is open overnight.

But city staff shied away from linking the calls to the Warming Center.

“I would guess you can try and interpret it how you want,” said City Manager Doug Russell in response to a question from City Councilor Jessica Dahlman seeking a direct connection. 

Graham needed less convincing. Since the shelter opened, the “new normal” in the neighborhood includes loitering, sexual acts and drug use, and residents finding needles and human feces strewn about, Graham said.

Graham highlighted the Warming Center’s application for a conditional use permit. According to city code, a permit should be issued only if the “proposed conditional use will have no more adverse effect on the health, safety, or comfort of persons living or working in the area.” 

“That is not happening,” Graham said. 

Councilor Ryan Hunter challenged Graham during the discussion, arguing that revoking the permit would leave the problem unaddressed. Rather than blaming the Warming Center for homelessness, the city and nonprofits must cooperate in addressing it, he said. 

“The reality is that without the shelter, there would be more people trespassing on private property … the homeless situation in our community would be worse,” Hunter said. 

Hunter pointed back to previous discussions about organizing a meeting between officials in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls to address homelessness in the Flathead Valley as well as conversations around creating a homeless advisory committee. Neither had occurred, he noted.

Following Council's discussion, dozens of people lined up to speak. Tonya Horn, executive director of the Flathead Warming Center, was among them. 

“Solutions like this will be [found] through dialogue, not through accusations,” Horn said. 

The concerns raised are unrelated to the conditional use permit, Horn said. The shelter is a last resort that helps people get back on their feet, not a catalyst for crime and chaos, she said. 

Horn said that the shelter is not in opposition of its neighbors and Warming Center officials do not defend anyone who has engaged in criminal activity. They will, however, defend the hundreds of guests who are trying to better their lives, she said. 

Blaming the shelter for an increase in homelessness is like blaming an oncologist for a rise in cancer patients, she said. While shelters do concentrate homeless people in an area of town where services are available, not all homeless individuals are in the neighborhood because of the Warming Center, she said. Her staff can only control what happens inside the center, she noted. 

“The Flathead Warming Center can not control all crime,” Horn said. “We’re being blamed for crime that happens across the entire county.”

WHILE MANY expressed concerns about the Center’s location, others supported its work on North Meridian Road. 

Marcella Williams, a mother and entrepreneur, highlighted the importance of treating homeless people like “neighbors.” Of all residents that come through the Warming Center, 94% are local or have strong local ties to the area. More low barrier housing is needed if the city wants to see fewer people on the streets, she said. 

“I understand everyone has concerns and complaints that are valid,” Williams said. “But what we really need to focus on are solutions, and pulling that permit is not the solution.”

But Rose Askvig, a business owner who lives and works on Liberty Street, said she had to change her hours and walk people to and from their cars for safety. 

“People are afraid, I’ve lost customers over this,” she said. “... It disgusts me to no end.” 

Her husband, Darryl Askvig, stated that he put blood, sweat and tears into his property. He doesn’t feel safe leaving his wife at home, he said, and his grandchildren don’t come to the neighborhood to visit. 

Former Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset, a member of the shelter’s board of directors, warned that without addressing the root causes of homelessness, the city will continue to see people living on the streets.

Revoking the permit, Nasset argued, would represent a failure to deal with the problem at hand. 

“We tried to solve the problem by just kicking it down the road and it didn’t work,” Nasset said. “I just ask that you work with us to try and work through this issue.”

Other speakers noted the limited resources available in the valley to aid the mentally ill or homeless. The lack of mental health facilities as well as the population boom and associated increase in housing prices were also cited as potential contributors to homelessness in Kalispell. 

Jayson Peters, a former city councilor, told Council that they voted on the shelter for a good reason: it provides an essential service that the valley lacked. The Warming Center isn’t responsible for the rise in homelessness in the area, he said. 

“Deal with the problem that is the actual real problem … not the pretend problem,” Peters said. 

The meeting, which ended about 11:30 p.m., concluded with Council deciding to schedule another work session to discuss next steps. A date for that work session has not yet been scheduled. 

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.