The homeless population in Kalispell and other parts of Flathead County has risen from 240 people in 2007 to nearly 800 in 2014, according to state and local surveys. The number of local people without a consistent place to sleep is one of the largest pockets in Montana, a state that already has the fifth highest rate of unsheltered individuals in the nation, according to the latest government data.
In light of these troubling statistics, several different groups have rallied to the cause.
A wide variety of free services for individuals or families who are homeless or are in need will be available at the fifth annual Project Homeless Connect on June 17 at the Expo Building at Flathead County Fairgrounds. The event, which is organized by the United Way, is from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s all from fundraising and donations that we’re able to do this for people who are struggling with their living situation,” said Sherry Stevens, director of United Way. “It isn’t just for the traditional person who is out on the street. However, we do want to serve that population. But it’s also for families that are really struggling to make ends meet.”
Last year’s event drew over 600 individuals who received dental exams, health services, financial education, employment assistance and much more. The event also features kids games and activities. Eagle Transit will be offering free bus rides to anyone attending the event.
Volunteers and donations are still being accepted. Agencies can register until June 8. Organizers are hoping to gather specific items for donation, including sleeping bags, bedding and blankets, children’s clothing and summer clothing for all ages. Donations may be dropped off at the United Way office, 1203 U.S. Highway 2 West, Suite 3.
In Whitefish, one man who experienced the struggle of being homeless himself is now creating a safe haven for veterans without permanent shelter.
Jason Stevens recently acquired a 17.5-acre lot on Hodgson Road between Kalispell and Whitefish for a future homeless shelter. The shelter, called Glacier Hope Homes, will be able to house 35 men. Stevens has been rallying support for the past year and hopes the shelter will open by August. He said the facility will provide all the living amenities of a normal shelter as well as mental health and employment services.
He himself is not a veteran but he became passionate about supporting them after learning of his father’s service in Korea. Then, when he was homeless for a time, he realized that so many other veterans have experienced similar tragedies.
“I just couldn’t believe what my father had been through,” he said. “When I was in the homeless shelter for a few months, I was listening to the stories of other veterans and the things these guys have been through. I just have a lot of empathy for them and compassion.”
Stevens said private donations and investors are supporting the shelter, along with grants.
For more information about the Glacier Hope Home, call Stevens at 406-871-6738.
A separate but similar effort is taking place in Kalispell, where a volunteer group is rallying support and resources for a temporary homeless shelter for teenagers. Called Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana, the group has been trying to develop the shelter for two years. Last fall Brian and Victoria Tanko purchased a 6,720-square-foot building on the corner of Second Street West and Seventh Avenue West that will be leased to the organization for $1 annually.
Cat Lenis, an AmeriCorps member working for the Sparrows Nest this year, said the group is developing plans for an architect to renovate the building.
“There’s been a lot of community support,” she said. “This is really a community effort.”
For more information about Sparrows Nest, visit www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org.