An aerial view of downtown Kalispell includes Depot Park, which has become a popular spot for homeless residents to congregate, provoking complaints from local businesses. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

Six months after it moved to limit the use of public parks, the city of Kalispell is preparing to institute new measures to deal with a growing homeless population in the Flathead Valley that has resulted in a rash of complaints in the county seat. 

Many of the issues have stemmed from the use of Depot Park in downtown Kalispell. This winter, the Kalispell City Council passed ordinances that made it unlawful to store or maintain personal property at public facilities, prohibited 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. Now it’s looking at cutting power and water to the park and installing bars on benches so people cannot sleep on them. 

City officials told Montana Free Press that the measures are being taken to address safety concerns raised by the community. But advocates for the homeless call them “band-aid” solutions that don’t address what’s causing the spike in homelessness in the first place.

Kalispell is not alone in its struggles to deal with an ever-increasing unhoused population in Montana. Earlier this month, Missoula’s mayor declared a state of emergency to address the issue and is diverting funds to help the Poverello Center reopen the Johnson Street Community Center shelter, which is usually only open in winter. Great Falls and Billings, among other cities, are also seeing a spike in people searching for shelter. Data recently published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness stated that there are nearly 1,600 people without shelter in Montana, although at least one homeless advocate said that wasn’t entirely accurate. 

Sean O’Neil, community service department director with Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana and chair of Collaborative Housing Solutions, a coalition of groups interested in addressing homelessness, said that every year they try to take a count of how many people are sleeping on the streets in Kalispell. The count always takes place in late January. For the four years prior to 2022, they found an average of 234 homeless people. In 2022, it jumped to 319. But this year’s count was down, O’Neil said, to 263 people. O’Neil said the drop doesn’t make a lot of sense when requests for housing help have increased in the last year, as has the number of people staying in places like Depot Park. 

“The numbers just don’t jive; they just don’t add up,” he said.

O’Neil said the undercount might have had something to do with a letter that was published at about the same time from all three Flathead County commissioners that called on the public to stop enabling the “homeless lifestyle.” O’Neil suggested that may have discouraged some people from telling volunteer counters that they were indeed homeless. 

The letter from the commissioners stated, without evidence, that the increase in homeless people in the Flathead was because outsiders were coming to Kalispell to take advantage of local resources, including a recently opened low-barrier shelter. But Chris Krager, executive director of The Samaritan House, a Kalispell shelter, rejected that theory. He said the spike in homelessness was the result of the Flathead Valley’s skyrocketing rent and home prices, plus the closure of a handful of local hotels where people between housing often stayed. 

 “I think Kalispell is a welcoming community so putting sharp and pointy things on park benches is not who we are. I also think it looks ugly.”

Chris Krager, executive director of The Samaritan House

Krager said increased mental health services and housing would be the key to addressing the issues stemming from the city’s growing homeless population. His organization is already trying to do its part by funding a $12 million expansion of its facility that will add 35 affordable apartments, plus room for 40 additional beds in emergency situations (The Samaritan House currently has room for 105 people and he said every bed is taken nightly). He expects to break ground on the expansion next year. 

Krager said he disagreed with the city’s recently passed ordinances and its plan to outfit benches so that people can’t sleep on them. 

“I think Kalispell is a welcoming community so putting sharp and pointy things on park benches is not who we are,” he said. “I also think it looks ugly.”

O’Neil agreed that it wasn’t addressing the root cause of homelessness. 

“I think you’ll find a few instances where these types of measures worked for a little while, but I think you’ll find 10 times the examples of when it didn’t,” he said “It’s a band-aid fix.”

But City Manager Doug Russell said something needed to be done sooner rather than later and that the city itself had few options. He said the situation at Depot Park has gotten so bad that the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce recently moved its visitor information center out of the old Great Northern Railway station there and down the street. He said he hoped the steps the city is now taking there will discourage homeless people from staying in Depot Park. 

“Our public parks are for the public, and we don’t want anything to inhibit the community’s use of it,” he said. 

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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 or follow him on Twitter.