Local Coalition Establishing Temporary Shelter for Valley’s Homeless Population

Samaritan House is maxed out amid increased demand; advocates worry about homelessness swelling long-term due to pandemic fallout

By Myers Reece
Chris Krager, executive director of Samaritan House. Beacon file photo

A local collaborative is finalizing the process to establish a temporary homeless shelter as demand rises at existing shelters in the wake of widespread closures and layoffs, and may increase further if and when a state moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expires.

Pending approval by the Kalispell City Council, the temporary shelter will open on April 20 at the Samaritan House’s administrative center in west Kalispell and operate through the duration of Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive, as well as a month afterward. Bullock recently extended the stay-at-home order to April 24 and could extend it again. The moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility cutoffs is also scheduled to expire on April 24.

Given the reality that unsheltered people can’t shelter in place, the local coalition has been working to find and secure a temporary shelter location for weeks. The Kalispell City Council is set to vote on the Samaritan House’s administrative center proposal on April 20, after which the shelter would immediately open.

The Samaritan House is Northwest Montana’s largest homeless shelter and has maxed out its capacity due to increased demand during the pandemic. Its administrative center, located at the corner of South Meridian Road and Second Street West, is the former U.S. Army Reserve Center.

The Flathead Emergency COVID-19 Emergency Shelter Collaborative is an offshoot of the Collaborative Housing Solutions of Northwest Montana, chaired by Samaritan House Executive Director Chris Krager. The coalition has partnered with organizations across the community, including shelters, mental-health organizations, veteran services, homeless teen services, domestic-violence services, hospitals, law enforcement, the public health department, church organizations, housing-development programs, civic organizations and government representatives.

The coalition has been working with the Flathead City-County Public Health Department to connect the project with the Flathead County COVID-19 Response Plan.

Krager said the 2019 annual homeless survey revealed that 58% of Flathead County’s homeless population is unsheltered, the highest rate in Montana. That means they are camping out or sleeping in places such as cars. Krager said he knows of dozens of unsheltered people locally who could use the temporary shelter immediately.

“The downside of the affordable housing crisis in Flathead County is unsheltered people,” Krager said. “Now we have this pandemic that is creating the need to locate a shelter for sheltering in place.”

The Samaritan House has recently seen an uptick in phone calls from newly unemployed families who can’t pay rent and are facing the prospects of no roof over their heads. Krager said not only are the sheer numbers of people seeking shelter rising, but so too are the lengths of stay.

The urgency for a temporary shelter increased following the closure of the Flathead Warming Center, another Kalispell shelter. Homeless advocates say a shelter could also help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as unsheltered people frequently move around and temporarily occupy spaces such as open lobbies. They also often cluster together in outdoor camps.

The Flathead Valley shelter will include three areas. The first is for unsheltered people who are healthy; the second is for unsheltered people who are showing symptoms of illness but have no diagnosis; and the third is for unsheltered people who have been officially diagnosed with COVID-19.

Jesse Jaeger, director of development and advocacy at the state’s largest homeless shelter, the Poverello Center in Missoula, said the moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility cutoffs is “absolutely critical,” and anticipates homeless numbers to begin rising after the moratorium expires.

Jaeger also worries about the long-term fallout of the pandemic, as stimulus checks run out and the dust settles on the economic disruption.

“We’re going to see some long-term consequences of this,” Jaeger said. “And when someone falls into homelessness, it’s much harder to get them back in a stable housing situation.”

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