Public complaints over tourists sleeping in their vans and campers on Kalispell’s city streets prompted the city council to narrowly approve an ordinance on Sept. 16 to make motor vehicle lodging a civil infraction, despite opposition from nonprofit groups worried about its impact on the homeless population.
While motor vehicle lodging is already banned under city code, the new ordinance will give the Kalispell Police Department authorization to investigate and issue civil infractions to violators. The ordinance will be effective in December.
Law enforcement will be able to write citations to individuals violating the code, which would be received by Kalispell Municipal Court and result in a fine.
The council voted 5-4 in favor after multiple nonprofit leaders appeared for public comment to dissuade council members at City Hall at the Sept. 16 meeting. They argued approval would pose unintended consequences for the homeless population because they often live out of their vehicles.
“Sleeping in vehicles is a sad, sad thing and already illegal,” said Hilary Shaw, the executive director of the Abbie Shelter in Kalispell.
Shaw argues that many of the individuals who are fined for vehicle lodging won’t be able to pay fines, making unfortunate situations more difficult to recover from.
“It falls under what we classify as the criminalization of poverty,” she said.
But Councilor Phil Guiffrida argues that vehicle lodging is already illegal, and the new ordinance would only enforce the law. He says the ordinance would protect property rights and public right-of-ways to street parking.
Guiffrida also says unnecessary vehicle density could potentially create issues for emergency services, blocking access. In addition, sanitation issues from sewage dumping were discussed due no utility hookups on public streets.
Despite motor vehicle lodging already being on the books, Kalispell City Council candidate Ryan Hunter questioned the harm it poses on the city. He doesn’t see any obvious signs demonstrating the negative effects of motor vehicle lodging on the community.
“I don’t believe the ordinance is achieving a purpose,” Hunter said.
Hunter believes the city council should focus on improving affordable housing to address the root of vehicle lodging, instead of punishing individuals in difficult circumstances.
Kalispell HEART Program Director Nichole Heyer said homelessness is on the rise because of the city’s affordable housing shortage, which leads both employed and unemployed individuals to sleep in their cars.
While the ordinance is meant to target tourists, Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman estimates that individuals sleeping in motor vehicles are split evenly between tourists and the homeless population.
But since the ordinance was complaint driven, city officials argue that they need to address the needs of all Kalispell populations and not just the homeless population.
“We’re dealing with city public right-of-way — don’t lose track of that,” Guiffrida said. “It’s there for those people who pay taxes, who own the property.”
City officials ultimately found the issue of homelessness and motor vehicle lodging to be unrelated and reminded opposing parties that it remains legal to sleep in vehicles in certain public parking lots and RV parks.
“We can’t lose track of the fact that this is already on the books,” Guiffrida said. “What we’re doing is we’re changing our enforcement mechanism.”