The city of Kalispell is looking to put limits on the use of its parks amid concerns within the community about homeless people staying on public lands and in public structures. The move comes as the Flathead Valley grapples with a growing number of people living on the streets.
On Monday night, three ordinances passed their first reading before the Kalispell City Council. The new rules would make it unlawful to store or maintain personal property at public facilities, prohibit the erection of structures like tents within city parks, and set a limit on the amount of time people can use covered park structures, like Depot Park’s gazebo, without first securing a permit. All three proposals passed and will get a second reading at the next city council meeting later this month.
Last month, during a well-attended public hearing, city officials noted that they had received numerous reports of disorderly conduct, public alcohol consumption, public nudity and public urination. The city manager also shared images of fecal matter left behind in a gazebo. In response to those issues at Kalispell’s Deport Park, the city temporarily closed a gazebo there.
Only a few members of the public attended Monday’s meeting, and most spoke in favor of the ordinances. One person who did not, however, was Jamie Quinn, executive director of the Flathead Food Bank. She likened the laws to “criminalizing poverty” and urged the council to do more to address the issue of homelessness in the area, not just how it impacts city parks.
The issue has come to a head in the Kalispell area in recent weeks, especially after the Flathead County Board of Commissioners published a letter calling on the community to stop enabling the “homeless lifestyle.” The letter, which was signed by commissioners Brad Abell, Randy Brodehl and Pam Holmquist, specifically blamed the valley’s growing homeless population on the opening of a low-barrier shelter. But advocates for homeless people pushed back on the letter, saying it was “out-of-touch” and did not address a factor that many people believe is adding to the problem: skyrocketing rent and home prices.
In an interview with Montana Free Press, Brodehl defended the letter and said it wasn’t aimed at people who have been negatively impacted by the area’s housing crisis, but rather those taking advantage of charity and available services. In the letter, the commissioners wrote that they believe homeless people from other communities are coming to the area because of a low-barrier shelter that opened in Kalispell in 2019.
“We can no longer turn a blind eye to this small group of people,” Brodehl said. “I’m trying to do what’s right, not what feels good. … It was a frank letter, but we’re not here as a government to provide services to people who are not being productive.”
Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said he can see both sides of the issue regarding homelessness in the valley. He said it is possible that some people are attracted to the area because of the services they might receive. He added, though, that lack of mental health and drug addiction services is also contributing to the problem.
He said he thinks the issue of homelessness in Kalispell is more apparent this winter because people are congregating in town, versus the rest of the year when they are more dispersed. He said the number of complaints regarding people camping on private property has skyrocketed in recent years, along with every type of call his deputies respond to, as the Flathead’s population continues to grow.
One thing Heino is sure of, however, is that the issue won’t be solved overnight.
“It’s a really tough situation,” he said. “I wish I had all the answers. I really do.”
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