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A Home at the Samaritan House: Expansion project nearly 20 years in the making

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | May 23, 2024 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series exploring the Samaritan House's $16.9 million expansion project.

Samaritan House Executive Director Chris Krager smiled on a recent day in Kalispell at a large marker board filled with colorful graphs and charts showing the organization’s progress toward the biggest expansion in its history — a project about 20 years in the making.

“We got this campus, no mortgage, and have been developing this plan for the expansion sort of ever since,” Krager said. “We sort of moved into it pretty quickly and fired it up to use in its current state, but we know that with a little streamlining, we can exponentially serve more people.”

The homeless outreach organization is adding two apartment buildings and will see an expansion of its administrative office on its campus on former Army Reserve property in Kalispell. Samaritan House is nearing its $16.9 million fundraising goal and is preparing to break ground in July, according to Krager.

Samaritan House serves 95 to 105 people at its Ninth Avenue West campus every night. Once the expansion is complete, organization officials expect to serve 85 to 100 additional people, effectively doubling its capacity. 

In addition to the apartments, there will be an expanded cafeteria and a cold weather overflow shelter. Krager said the overflow shelter undertaking is in partnership with Collaborative Housing Solutions of Northwest Montana, a consortium of the area’s homeless outreach groups. 

The overflow area aside, Samaritan House has around 64 clients in its shelter program and 32 in transitional housing on a typical night. If more long-term patrons are eligible and can afford it, they can potentially move into one of the facility’s 31 permanent apartments. 

The forthcoming income-based housing for veterans will include 16 units, with one set aside for a traveling Veterans Affairs inspector. Krager said the shelter has five to six inspections a year. 

“There will also be a commons area there. It'll be a nice place to sit and have a cup of coffee and just kind of relax,” Krager said. 

Making the new spaces comfortable for residents is important to Samaritan House officials. Krager said they hired Colorado-based architecture firm Shopworks, which specializes in trauma-informed design. Shopworks partnered with the project’s main architecture firm, LSW Architects, to incorporate those design elements across the entire campus. Krager said most of the people who stay at the shelter or move into its low-income housing have trauma in their pasts. 

“It's open spaces, nice windows. Mom's got to be able to glance over and see the kids, no trapped corner feelings,” he said. 

This comes into play for the veterans staying there, too. Krager said roughly 30% of the residents they serve are former servicemen and women, and many of them are from the Vietnam era, getting older in age and needing heightened medical care. As well as being ADA compliant for those with mobility issues, veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder will benefit from the trauma-informed design — like the lack of long hallways or hidden corners.

According to the VA, one in three female veterans report experiencing sexual harassment or assault while in the military. Krager said this statistic only increases for women who end up homeless.

“In a situation like that we have female staff, female case managers. We get them connected, they have a place where they can close the door and lock it behind them when they sleep,” Krager said. “And I'm telling you almost every time, the woman will tell our staff the next day, ‘I stared at the doorknob all night until I fell asleep when I realized it wasn't going to open.’” 

The shelter provides security for people fleeing bad or abusive situations, which is why many mothers with children relocate there. For the new family housing, Krager said they will be building 18 two- to three-bedroom apartments, which will include a community center with a multipurpose area and kitchenette. A staff member — this position will be funded by a grant from the Enterprise Foundation — will be helping coordinate meetings between residents and outreach organizations, with three to four offices on site to accommodate them. 

Krager said it’s important to offer options for families with strained financial resources. 

“For those families, what we're hoping to create is a nice apartment that can be for somebody who has a very limited income,” Krager said. 

Hurdles remain, though. Krager said there are a limited number of project-based Section 8 housing vouchers in Montana. According to Montana Housing, which falls under the state Department of Commerce, the program provides Housing Assistance Payments between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the property owner. Eligible families’ rent contributions are generally 30% of their adjusted monthly gross income.

Krager said he has been vigilant in looking for other vouchers that become available across the state, like eight that were recently freed up when a facility in Miles City closed. But he was told the vouchers have to come from Flathead County. 

“I'm working on that too. But, it's a bleak picture. I hope I can pull it off,” Krager said. 

Krager has been active at the state Legislature, too. Last year, he joined the Montana Coalition to End Homelessness to successfully lobby for House Bill 380, which ended up being tacked onto House Bill 5. The legislation guaranteed the expansion project $1.5 million in funding.

He said the shelter’s status as a community housing development organization allows them to apply for various types of grants and loans. He hopes to have 75% of funds for the expansion project raised by the groundbreaking, which he expects to occur in July. 

Samaritan House was founded by Catholic nun June Kenny, who also started the Poverello Center in Missoula. She arrived in the Flathead Valley in the late 1980s. Krager said at the time, staff with the Kalispell Planning and Development helped Kenny’s team formalize the organization’s nonprofit status and obtain its campus. After a lot of grant writing and work, the organization started serving the community in 1998. 

Krager was hired in 2001 after Kenny died. He previously worked as a mental health professional.

“It was a natural progression. In fact, when I learned of the opening that Samaritan House was trying to hire for, I actually was stopping by there in search of housing for a client. And so they're like, ‘Hey, you know some of our people already, why don’t you sit on this side of the desk?’” Krager said.

In 2006, Samaritan House received the old armory property from the General Services Administration’s Real Property Disposition program. When the federal government closed the building, it was obligated to donate the space to a high-priority cause such as homelessness. While the nonprofit’s leaders created a plan and raised funds for an expansion, they have converted it into their administrative office.

Though the discussion around homelessness and affordable housing has grown contentious in recent years, Krager said he has hope that relief is on the way. With the development of many new apartment complexes around the Flathead Valley, he believes the increase in housing will eventually have a positive effect

“The bummer is housing is not a scenario that changes fast, it changes 10 years later … so we're gonna keep trying to figure it out,” Krager said. 

There has been an increase in the homeless population in Kalispell over the last several years and nonprofit groups that serve the homeless community have weathered criticisms from residents and local lawmakers alike, who accuse them of adding to the problem. According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Montana saw the largest growth of people experiencing chronic patterns of homelessness between 2007 and 2023 at 551% more individuals— an accumulating percentage calculated by a change in how many more people report chronic homelessness each year during the Point-in-Time survey. 

Krager said he believes it takes a network of organizations to help meet the community’s needs. It’s frustrating that people can make statements with such a harsh edge towards people that are struggling, Krager said of the vitriol directed at homeless residents. 

“We have a campus full of people that in most cases this is the biggest crisis of their life,” Krager said. “I think if we really get to know the folks, and the way that the program is helping at Samaritan House, I think it would be a much more empathetic conversation.”

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.

    The Samaritan House in 2001 announced plans to expand by constructing 45 new apartments at the former Army Reserve Armory in Kalispell.