As the holidays and winter simultaneously approach in the Flathead Valley, the homeless population braces for subzero temperatures while pursuing the next roof to cover their heads.
The Samaritan House in Kalispell sees an uptick in shelter needs every year once the temperatures drop. While the nonprofit has limited space, its goal is to never turn away any individual or family when the elements become uninhabitable.
“That’s the nature of homelessness in Montana — at any time of year, it could be fatal,” Samaritan House Director Chris Krager said.
Krager says volunteers at the Samaritan House roll out hotel cots in the facility to accommodate excess people. But when it’s at capacity, the shelter will direct people to United Way, which often gives them a hotel voucher.
According to a 2019 Montana Homeless Survey conducted in January by the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition, there are about 170 homeless people in Flathead County and more than 1,000 in the state.
However, these numbers do not account for the entire homeless population since many of them do not participate in the survey. Krager says it’s difficult to get an accurate representation of homeless populations.
Flathead County has the third largest homeless population in the state, behind Yellowstone and Missoula counties, according to the available data. Fifty-eight percent of that population is unsheltered, meaning they are living on the streets. Krager suspects the lack of affordable housing in the valley is a root cause of many people’s lack of housing.
But the Samaritan House, which runs both the shelter and a transitional living program, works to combat these statistics. In 2018, the shelter served 38,642 meals on a budget of $9,000.
From food and cookware to furniture and beds, the shelter relies completely on donations and the roughly 25 volunteers that are needed per week. Krager says on average it costs the shelter $10 per three-person family to feed and house them per night.
“Everything’s donated,” Krager said. “That’s how we keep it lean, mean and efficient.”
This winter, the shelter received more than 4,000 brand new coats from a corporate clothing grant and it continues to receive clothing donations from individuals throughout the year.
While the shelter constantly needs tangible goods, Krager says monetary donations are also needed since those funds can be used more flexibly to cover utilities and facility costs.
The Samaritan House has a Thanksgiving feast lined up this year that will feed four turkeys to about 40 people.
Experiencing homelessness during the holiday season is especially hard for people, and Krager notices the added stress. He says individuals and families will come into the shelter distraught with tearful eyes. But he says they quickly warm up to the Samaritan House and are thankful for the safe, clean and relaxing environment.
“It’s really heartwarming,” Krager said.
Krager says kids are often worried that Santa won’t be able to find them on Christmas Eve because they don’t have a home. But Krager ensures that Santa makes an appearance every year so no Christmas dreams are crushed.
“I have overheard kids leap for joy,” Krager said.
Those interested in donating can drop off items at the Samaritan House at 124 9th Ave. in Kalispell or donate financial contributions online at www.samaritanhousemt.com or homelessintheflathead.blogspot.com.
Another Flathead homeless shelter is A Ray of Hope, which also operates a Christian ministry, thrift store and women’s and children shelter. Visit www.arayofhopemontana.com for more info.
There’s also the Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana (www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org), which works with our community to ensure that unaccompanied homeless high school students have a safe place to sleep at night.
The Kalispell HEART Program (www.kalispellheartprogram.org) is not a shelter but provides services, including a free store, for local students struggling with homelessness.