GREAT FALLS — From a distance, the parking lot at First United Methodist Church in downtown might look like a camping site. The makeshift tents, handful of trailers and often unruly crowd stand in stark contrast to the quieter homes and businesses nearby. 

But the lot isn’t just a campground. For people like Jeff Falk, it’s home. 

Falk, who has been living on the site on and off for about a year, used to sleep in the window well of the church. He’s been taking care of a friend and two dogs since he put up his tent in April, though he often feels like he has to stay “trapped” inside to make sure nothing gets stolen, which has happened before. 

He’s been homeless in Great Falls for three years. But this year, he said, has been the “worst.” 

“We just need a place to stay,” he said. “There are a lot of us that are truly homeless.”

Falk was the third person to pitch a tent on the property, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeff Wakeley, who said the circumstances that created the encampment aren’t a “homeless issue,” but a “housing issue.” 

“We’re doing what at this point seems to be necessary,” Wakeley said Tuesday during a public hearing of the city’s Planning Advisory Board and Zoning Commission. “We realize that it is not perfect. We are reacting to the situation.”

In recent months, amid increasing reports of crime in the area and a lawsuit filed by the city against the church, the encampment has become a source of controversy. It’s also indicative of a larger homelessness problem exacerbated by a scarcity of affordable housing and a lack of drug-prevention services. 

“We’re doing what at this point seems to be necessary. We realize that it is not perfect. We are reacting to the situation.”

Jeff Wakeley, reverend of First United Methodist Church

The encampment appears to be a symptom of underlying and interrelated problems that have long existed in the community. The difference now, in the heart of downtown, is that they have become more visible and, in turn, more politicized by people with differing views about social welfare. 

On all sides, though, many agree that Great Falls’ existing resources, stretched by the pandemic and current economy, continue to leave some people out. 

“Like it or not, the city of Great Falls has a need that its institutions simply have failed to satisfy,” said Megan Miller, who is part of the recently formed group Housed Great Falls, at Tuesday’s hearing. 

There have been reports of “drug use, harassment of passers-by, assaults and other inappropriate behaviors” at the encampment since the beginning of the year, according to a presentation at the hearing by Craig Raymond, the city’s director of planning and community development. 

The Great Falls Police Department has received hundreds of calls for service since the encampment was set up last year and written 46 citations so far this year, according to the presentation. Officers have made 21 arrests overall. Police Capt. John Schaffe told The Electric this week that officers have responded to 263 calls for service in just the last two months. 

Almost no other single property in town experiences such a high volume of calls, he said. 

“If the United Methodist Church does not have the means to comprehensively address mental health issues and substance abuse issues, the situation at the campsite will continue to deteriorate until it is unmanageable and unsustainable,” Dustin Pepos, a Great Falls resident, said at the hearing. 

In late March, United Way of Cascade County conducted an informal survey of more than a dozen homeless people staying at the church. One couple had just been kicked out of their apartment after one of them lost their job due to COVID-related cutbacks. Another person said they had been waiting for months to get into housing. 

Data from the Montana Regional Multiple Listing Service shows the median sales price of a home in Great Falls was $319,000 in May. Since January 2019, Great Falls has seen an 18.2% increase in home prices, according to Beth Duke, president of the Great Falls Association of Realtors. Duke said the people in Great Falls being hurt the most by the price hike are first-time homebuyers. 

“Number one, there isn’t enough inventory,” she said. “Number two, prices are too high, and now, with interest rates rising, they can afford less home.”

A community housing study released in December 2021 showed a “significant increase” in out-of-state renters and buyers coming into the community, driven by projected new jobs and work-from-home trends. Those buyers often come to Great Falls from more expensive cities and offer more cash up front.  

“This trend together with increasing cost of construction have created an upward pressure on home prices in the Great Falls area,” the report said. 

The study also projected a “significant under-supply” of rentals and for-sale houses over the next decade. Great Falls needs about 190 more rental units and 250 more for-sale units per year, the report found.

Brett Doney, president and CEO of the Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA), one of the groups that commissioned the study, said the population in Great Falls was “stable for many, many years.” That dynamic didn’t attract a lot of housing developers. The study was in part intended to demonstrate the community’s population growth to attract developers to come and build. 

“They don’t go to where they can make money; they tend to go to where they can make the most money,” he said. 

Doney said GFDA has had “great success” with what it calls “workforce housing rentals” and offering short-term loans to developers to build those properties. With that strategy, GFDA has helped build almost 300 units in developments like the Talus Apartment complex, and another 216 units are under construction.

The Montana Homeless Survey, compiling data from 2020, showed 198 homeless people in Great Falls. That number was roughly on par with Billings and Helena. Missoula had 468 homeless people. Bozeman and Livingston reported 125. 

But those numbers may not be entirely accurate, according to Gary Owen, since the survey largely relied on volunteers in the middle of the pandemic. Owen is the local coordinator for the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, a group dedicated to ending homelessness in the state. He said that when it comes to gathering data on the homeless population, no data can be “100% reflective of reality.” The statewide Homeless Management Information System currently shows 144 homeless people in Great Falls. 

Owen said that while the encampment controversy has made the homeless population “more visible” in the community, it doesn’t by itself prove an increase in homelessness. 

“Homelessness didn’t start a year ago when people started showing up at the Methodist Church,” he said. “We’ve had people experiencing homelessness for a long time.”

But Jim McCormick, who runs the Great Falls Rescue Mission, said the mission has been “under the gun” with increased demand for roughly the past year. He thinks it could be because renovations to the mission’s women’s shelter have taken significantly longer than expected. When those renovations began last June, the mission moved about two dozen women from the shelter to the Cameron Family Center, which meant fewer beds available for families.

The Rescue Mission is what some consider a “high barrier” facility: Homeless people must be clean and sober to stay there. Though the mission provides a faith-based program, in which people staying there are not required to partake, that program does not include substance-abuse prevention. 

“We can’t be everything to everybody,” McCormick said. 

“Homelessness didn’t start a year ago when people started showing up at the Methodist Church. We’ve had people experiencing homelessness for a long time.”

Gary Owen, Montana Continuum of Care Coalition

Kim Skornogoski, the marketing director for United Way who conducted the informal survey in March, said many of the people in the church encampment were suffering from alcohol and drug abuse. Many encampment opponents who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing acknowledged that even though residents aren’t allowed to drink or use drugs on the site, many still do. Meanwhile, there are currently no in-patient addiction treatment centers in Great Falls that accept Medicaid, according to Gia Minardi of Housed Great Falls. 

“This is the population that we are trying to actively support with both short-term and long-term solutions that will enable them to be successful in whatever way they deem success,” Minardi said. “Right now, that temporary solution is to provide some sort of low-barrier shelter on the church property.”

Michael Yegerlehner, a counselor and member of Housed Great Falls, said at the hearing he is “booked out months” with patients, as is the Center for Mental Health. He said he’d spoken that morning with someone who was on a two-week waiting list for recovery services at the Montana Chemical Dependency Center.

“You just don’t walk in and instantly get help,” he said. 

A potential solution could come in the form of “permanent supportive housing,” which is housing designed to pair “chronically homeless people” with both housing and supportive services, according to NeighborWorks Great Falls. The Baatz Building, a three-story project in the works in downtown Great Falls, will create about two dozen such homes in the coming years. 

“I’m an optimist,” said Sherrie Arey, executive director of NeighborWorks, which is spearheading the project. “I think we’ve got a good lay of the landscape of what’s going on.” 

After more than three hours of debate Tuesday, the Planning Advisory Board and Zoning Commission unanimously rejected the church’s request for a conditional use permit. The permit would be necessary to keep the encampment in place, because current zoning laws prohibit camping or emergency shelter in that area of town unless the city makes an exception. The decision came just a few weeks after the city of Great Falls sought an injunction in district court to bar First United from letting people sleep in its parking lot overnight. That case is pending. 

“We don’t feel that having a homeless shelter is impossible in the zoning district,” said Raymond, who represented the city at Tuesday’s hearing. “In fact we feel adamant that it is very possible, and we encourage the community to get together and propose something that will work, because we feel it can work. But the proposal as it exists today, we just feel it’s not something that could be supported.” 

The permit requested by the church still has to go before the full City Commission for a vote and another public hearing on July 19. 

In the meantime, “the problem will not go away,” Yegerlehner explained at Tuesday’s hearing.  

“You may wish it to go away, you may want it to go away, but should doesn’t mean that it will,” he said. “It shouldn’t snow in June, but it does. And we deal with it.”

UPDATE June 22, 2022:

First United Methodist Church withdrew its application for a conditional use permit following the June 14 public hearing. At a city commission meeting on June 21, city attorney Jeff Hindoien said the move to revise the request will require another public hearing of the Planning Advisory Board and Zoning Commission before the permit will eventually go to the full city commission for a vote.

Hindoien called the decision a “reset.” He said he was in contact with First United’s legal counsel, a Missoula lawyer, who said the church will file another request for a conditional use permit for an emergency shelter — this time with a “more defined structure” — on the downtown property. 

The revised version, however, will not request the placement of tents and other camping structures that were suggested in the first permit, and the church will take steps to remove some of the existing structures on the site as “part and parcel” of that strategy. 

“That’s hopefully the trajectory we’re on here,” Hindoien said at the meeting. “So far so good with that first step.”

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Zach Schermele, born and raised in Great Falls, was a multimedia journalist for the Montana Television Network in 2020. He graduated with a degree in political science from Columbia University, where he was an award-winning editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator, and has worked as a reporting intern at NBC News, POLITICO and the Chronicle of Higher Education.