Beneath a forested canopy of trees near Kalispell’s Lawrence Park, Felisha Klein reluctantly sorted through the heaps of blankets and clothing that littered her campsite, folding and stacking a summer’s worth of refuse into tidy piles.
She dispatched the chore with grim resolve, her neat columns of valuables standing out in stark contrast against the inextricable mess of bicycle parts and old appliances, the beer cans and bean cans and mud-caked tarpaulins, which struck haphazard poses all around her.
Having just turned 30, Klein was being evicted from her home in the woods, forced by law enforcement to abandon the illegal campsite that she’d called home for the past three months.
At the behest of the Kalispell Police Department, Klein broke down her piece of the sprawling camp, a secluded spot where she’s been living al fresco off and on for seven years, she said, recently sharing the multi-jurisdictional postage stamp of land with her husband and another couple, as well as a rotating cast of homeless men and women with no place to go.
A dozen yards from where Klein was working, a young man nodded off in a lawn chair. When he woke, he opened a can of beans with a peeling red label, searched the ground briefly until he located a plastic spoon and dug in.
Police say anywhere between 18 and 24 people have been living in the forests flanking Lawrence Park this summer, establishing a hovel that has rankled nearby neighbors who complain about raucous shouting and persistent campfire smoke.
Local law enforcement deals with transient camps in the area every summer, but they’ve never seen it this established, or so populated.
“It absolutely is the biggest I’ve ever seen it. It really got away from us this year,” Sgt. Allen Bardwell of the Kalispell Police Department said. “I think it’s going to take an army of people and a line of trucks to get this place cleaned up.”
For her part Klein is well-mannered and keeps to herself, and shied away from involvement when a loud, profanity-laced argument broke out between two of her campmates, one of whom she said was “coming down off of dope.”
“A lot of the people around here have drug addiction problems. James and I have been doing a good job at staying clean, but it’s been hard,” Klein said, referring to her partner, who works full time. “I just turned 30 and I’ve been homeless for most of the last 7 years. Finding a job, keeping a place. It’s really hard.”
Despite those hard times, it’s time for Klein and the others to move along.
Chris Krager, executive director of the Samaritan House, the largest refuge for homeless men, women and children in Northwest Montana, ventured into the camp on Aug. 24, two days before the deadline police had given the forest’s occupants to move out.
Shouldering a nylon backpacking pack for anyone who might need it, Krager distributed business cards and explained the services and resources “Sam House” offers — bedrooms, washrooms, hot meals, and job services.
Of the eight or so folks he spoke to, he expected that a couple might take him up on the offer.
Because the Samaritan House receives federal grant money, its residents must adhere to certain rules, including a prohibition on alcohol and drugs, and a 10 p.m. curfew. Many prospective residents chafe under those constraints, opting instead to live outdoors.
Klein counts herself among those reluctant to abandon the homeless lifestyle.
“A lot of people would rather be homeless,” she said. “I’d rather live in a tent than have to figure out whether or not I have money to pay rent and electricity and gas every month. It’s not that we don’t want a place of our own, it’s that we can’t afford it.”
On Aug. 19, the Kalispell Police Department began posting notices throughout the camps, stapling fliers to trees explaining that anyone who hadn’t vacated the premises by Aug. 25 would be subject to arrest for criminal trespassing.
“The Kalispell Police Department is giving you an opportunity to pack up and clean up your camp and vacate the area,” the notice states. “Any property remaining in this area will be seized and destroyed.”
Given the volume of trash and abandoned piles of clothing and miscellaneous belongings strewn about the camps — furniture, washing machines, golf clubs — the Flathead Marines have volunteered their time to clean up the land.
Tim “Merk” Merklinger, a member of the Flathead Marines, said about a dozen volunteers would converge on the camps Aug. 27 to try and make a dent in the mess.
“We have identified two areas that look like a super Wal-Mart threw up all over it,” Merklinger said. “We are going to clean it all up by hand and drag it out of there about 300 yards through brush and stickers and grass. We are going to get sweaty and muddy, but we’ll get ‘er done.”
Kalispell Parks and Recreation Superintendent Fred Bicha said he’s heard numerous complaints from neighboring residents, but that ownership of the area is split up between public and private ownership, lending jurisdictional confusion to the mess.
“The camps aren’t all on public land, so that makes it a little tricky,” he said. “It’s sad because this is a huge social issue. It is so big. It’s an epidemic and it takes the involvement of almost every city department. It’s a pretty involved issue.”
Both the police and the nearby homeowners understand that homelessness is a pervasive problem, and the people residing in the woods skirting Lawrence Park are part of a tribe of between 400 and 500 men and women who are homeless in the Flathead Valley. Many of them are employed and working to support families, many of them have injuries or health problems that drained bank accounts. Others have pressing legal issues, undiagnosed mental illnesses, or suffer from debilitating addiction.
Ben Long lives nearby, and on hot summer evenings, when the windows are open, he described frequent bouts of shouting and constant plumes of campfire smoke.
“The campfire smoke looks like a boy scout jamboree,” he said. “This is a great forest, where generations of neighborhood kids used to feel safe to play. It’s full of turtles and frogs, and it’s not safe anymore. I think the challenge in the future is going to be maintaining a presence to keep it from getting so out of hand. Cleaning it up is one thing, but keeping it clean in the future is another story.”
Across the Stillwater River from Klein’s camp, Jessica Tallmadge, 26, sorted through her own collection of belongings while her partner, who is unemployed, slept in a fortified tent. She’s been living at the camp since April, working at Wendy’s to scratch out a meager living but not nearly enough to provide housing for both of them.
When told about the options available at the Samaritan House, Tallmadge listened and politely declined. She was expecting a paycheck soon, and figured she’d splurge on a weekly room at a local motel.
“With me working everything has been kind of crazy these past few months,” she said. “We don’t want to get arrested, but we can’t stay here. Hopefully everything will work out.”
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