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Flathead County commissioners voice concerns over homeless, Kalispell shelter responds

Flathead Warming Center
Posted at 8:07 AM, Jan 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-25 10:32:24-05

KALISPELL - Flathead County Commissioners wrote an open letter to the community on Friday addressing the increase in homelessness in Flathead County.

In the letter, commissioners said part of the problem is community members “enabling” the homeless population.

“The simple truth is that providing homeless infrastructure has the predictable consequence of attracting more homeless individuals to our community," the letter states.

In the middle of winter, the Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell is seeing a record number of visitors, filling up all 50 beds each night.

Executive Director Tonya Horn said overnight visitors must follow strict guidelines and additional resources are needed throughout the Flathead community.

“Taking care of individual's basic needs does not mean enabling but holding people accountable for their behaviors is very important inside the warming center but also very important throughout our whole community, and what’s happening in our community is that we’re just passing individuals around because we don’t have the resources that they need to be well,” said Horn.

In an open letter signed by all three county commissioners, commissioners wrote: "when a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals.” The letter added, "make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some.” (See the full letter below)

Horn said the increase in Flathead’s homeless population has been going on for years due to a lack of affordable housing and minimal resources addressing mental health and addiction issues.

“The Flathead Warming Center exists because homelessness is a big problem in our community, if not one of the biggest problems, and I was surprised because we want to be a part of the solution, we are a part of the solution and we invite the county commissioners to be a part of the solution too,” added Horn.

Flathead County Commissioner Brad Abell said he’s worried about law enforcement being overwhelmed with incidents regarding the homeless population.

“The intoxication, the drug use, the needles left on the ground really threaten our public safety,” said Abell.

Abell said he sympathizes with the homeless population, especially those from Flathead County, but he feels like a portion of homeless individuals are taking advantage of the community.

“We need to direct that compassion to the people that truly need it, that are willing to change, that want to get rid of their addictions, that want to deal with their mental health problems, you know want to take their medications, those are the people, we want to help those,” said Abell.

Horn said change can happen if the community comes together to find solutions, which includes support from county commissioners.

“It comes from everyone being at the table, we need the county commissioners at the table with solutions,” said Horn.

She believes the majority of Flathead residents support the warming center’s mission.

“I don’t think it was the intended consequence of the letter, however, the amount of support from our community has been amazing, just people walking in and handing us a check and saying this is my response,” said Horn.

Here's the full text of the letter the commissioners wrote:

Dear Flathead County residents,

We, the Flathead County Board of Commissioners, are addressing the community after receiving numerous complaints of an increasing and distressing problem in our valley. The Flathead Beacon recently reported that Kalispell has the second highest number of homeless in the state. If we continue to enable the homeless population, then those numbers will increase.

The simple truth is that providing homeless infrastructure has the predictable consequence of attracting more homeless individuals to our community. When a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals. Using social media and smartphones, these wanderers are well-networked and eager to share that Kalispell has “services” to serve their lifestyle. Make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some. In fact, many of the homeless encountered in our parks, streets, and alleys consist of a progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject help and live unmoored. Although well intended, facilities that offer only shelter, and no accountability, exacerbate the problem.

Therefore, it is our hope that our community will be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle. Many times, that spare change that you give to the homeless individual standing at the intersection is used for drugs and alcohol. We are asking our peers serving on city councils to not permit or expand warming shelters that bring more of these homeless individuals to our community.

We believe that hard conversations solve hard problems. We ask members of our community to speak out about their experiences with the homeless. Only together can we make it clear to this networked homeless community that “enough is enough.”

Commissioner Brad Abell
Commissioner Randy Brodehl
Commissioner Pam Holmquist