Advocates for homeless people in northwest Montana are pushing back after the Flathead County Board of Commissioners called on community members to stop enabling the “homeless lifestyle” and blamed the valley’s growing homeless population on the opening of a low-barrier shelter. 

At least one housing advocate has said the three commissioners should resign due to their “out-of-touch” rhetoric. 

Last week, Republican commissioners Brad Abell, Randy Brodehl and Pam Holmquist signed a letter alleging that the homeless population in the Flathead Valley is growing because of services being offered in the area, including a low-barrier shelter that opened in 2019. 

“When a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals,” the letter read. “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.”

The letter did not provide evidence that people from out of the area are actually coming to Kalispell. Nor did Abell, Brodehl or Holmquist respond to an email from Montana Free Press asking for their evidence. 

The commission’s letter continued that it is up to the community to say “enough is enough” and discourage more homeless people from coming to the area. 

“It is our hope that our community will be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle,” the letter continued. “Many times, that spare change that you give to the homeless individual standing at the intersection is used for drugs and alcohol.”

Tonya Horn, executive director of the Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell, said the commission’s letter was full of false and “outlandish” claims.

The Flathead Warming Center opened in late 2019 as a low-barrier shelter near downtown Kalispell. (Many shelters require people staying there to not be using drugs or have a criminal background, but a low-barrier shelter does not have those requirements). It is open nightly from October until April. When the shelter first opened it had 20 beds, but today it has 50. Horn said even with more than double the original number of beds, shelter staff has to turn people away almost every night. 

Unlike what the commissioner’s letter suggested, Horn said, most people who stay at the shelter are from the Flathead Valley. According to the warming center, 65% of its guests have lived in the valley for more than a year, and 42% have lived in the area for more than 10 years.

“We are serving our neighbors who have lived here for a long time, and I think the commissioners would have actually learned that if they had talked to us,” Horn said, adding that the commissioners have never taken her up on her offer to visit the facility. 

“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.”

Letter signed by all three members of the Flathead County Board of Commissioners

The issue of homelessness in Kalispell has apparently come to a head in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the city of Kalispell closed a gazebo in a public park because homeless people had been gathering at it daily. City Manager Doug Russell recently told the Flathead Beacon that city employees found trash and human waste in and around the gazebo. The Kalispell City Council is expected to hold a hearing on the issue on Monday. 

Horn said some of the people who come to the Flathead Warming Center are suffering from mental health issues and drug addiction. The problem is made worse, she added, because there are few resources for those people in the community. A local drug treatment clinic run by the hospital is almost always full. Horn said she hopes the community can come together to find solutions to the issues that lead to homelessness. 

However, one benefit to the commission’s letter, Horn said, is that the number of donations received by the Flathead Warming Center in recent days has dramatically increased. 

Nathan Dugan, co-founder and president of Shelter WF, a housing advocacy group based in Whitefish, said that when he first read the letter from the commission he thought it was fake because it was so “out-of-touch.” Dugan said he was most surprised by the fact that the letter completely ignored what many people believe is causing the increase in homelessness in the Flathead: skyrocketing rent and home prices. Since 2020, home prices in the area have increased dramatically, including in places like Columbia Falls and Kalispell, which for many years were seen as less expensive alternatives to Whitefish. According to Montana Regional MLS, the average home price in recent years has doubled in Kalispell, from $307,788 in January 2019 to $618,755 in December 2022. In some instances, people have been evicted because the owner of the home they were renting decided to sell. Some local businesses have even offered to house employees

Dugan said he is especially worried the commissioners’ letter could result in acts of violence against homeless people. But more than anything, he said, it showed that the county commissioners are not interested in addressing one of the Flathead’s biggest challenges. 

“They’re out of touch, and they clearly do not care about this issue,” he said. “I believe they should be removed from office for signing that letter. It’s disqualifying.” 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.