There is almost nothing good about the coronavirus, and Samaritan House Executive Director Chris Krager knows that better than almost anyone.
But with the Flathead COVID-19 Emergency Shelter Collaborative closing up shop on June 12, Krager and a host of volunteers and cooperators may have found a sliver of a silver lining in the midst of a national disaster. Their makeshift shelter served 70 total clients during the more than seven weeks it was open, helped 30 percent of those clients “conquer homelessness” and revealed a roadmap to what Krager sees as a reachable goal — “solving” homelessness in the Flathead Valley.
The arrival of the coronavirus in Montana spurred a bevy of stakeholders to find a way to protect the unsheltered community, a group that is particularly susceptible to a contagious virus both because of their reliance on public facilities and because a case of the coronavirus within that community would likely spread quickly. So a collaboration of government entities and private agencies scouted a handful of locations throughout Kalispell before settling on the Samaritan House’s administrative building as the place to keep the unsheltered safe. On Monday, April 20, the first clients walked through the door.
One day later, 74-year-old Mary Larson Krona died at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. She was Montana’s 13th death from the novel coronavirus and Chris Krager’s mom.
Krager had dropped her off at the hospital weeks earlier, driving a rarely used truck and wearing full-body protective gear sealed with duct tape. He pulled up to the emergency room and remembered the stories he had heard about other families who had been forced to do the same. He took his time and said goodbye, for what would be the final time.
Krona was in the hospital during much of the planning phase for the temporary shelter, and the days following her passing kept Krager occupied, so the sense of collaboration that brought the shelter together took on added importance. Kyle Waterman, a Kalispell city councilor and member of the Flathead City-County Health Board, stepped in to oversee the project and helped bring together the dozen or so organizations that were part of it.
The end result was a resounding success. By the time the shelter closed, 21 of the 70 people it had served had since found housing, 12 had landed jobs, 43 had, in Krager’s words, “increased their self-determination” and been connected to additional social services and potential benefits, and 12 others were moved to Samaritan House’s main facility. On June 12, everyone had a place to go next. In one particularly stirring case, a three-tour Vietnam veteran named Pat found his way to the temporary shelter after decades of homelessness and was connected with his benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for the first time. He’s living in his own apartment now and, in Krager’s opinion, “should be looking for a real estate agent.”
Krager, who has managed the Samaritan House for almost two decades, is as in-tune with the crisis of homelessness as anyone in the Flathead Valley, and talking outside the temporary shelter on June 11, he considered what had been accomplished. By his estimation, the temporary shelter combined with existing shelters helped 100 percent of people comply with the state’s shelter-in-place order and proved that a more permanent answer to the problem he tackles is within reach.
“Homelessness in America is solvable; we can solve it,” Krager says. “And this is a great example. For a brief stretch of time almost all of the homelessness in the Flathead Valley was contained. We handled it. We did it, for a brief glimpse.”
Larry and Julie Feist arrived in Kalispell not long before the coronavirus, tasked with running the Salvation Army’s Kalispell Corps, and they became key pieces of the temporary shelter’s success. The group already provides breakfast and lunch five days a week, but with Samaritan House’s cafeteria and food preparation areas now used to shelter clients, the Salvation Army volunteered to take over the cooking. Their chef prepared three meals a day, which the Feists drove to the shelter and delivered to a tent set up as a temporary mess hall. Samaritan House managed food prep on the weekends — and local restaurants including Bias Brewery sometimes dropped off additional food — so that the shelter was able to provide more than 2,700 total meals.
“We’re all in this together. We’re a team,” Larry Feist said. “Whether it be with Salvation Army or the unhoused shelter, we’re all in this together and we’re trying to help each other.”
Another assist came from ImagineIF Library in Kalispell. The unhoused population frequents the library regularly, most importantly to access job applications and other services via the internet. With the library closed, Samaritan House added WiFi internet access to the administrative building and the library loaned computers for clients to use.
And more work is still to come. The 20 beds at the temporary shelter were all placed in the cafeteria, along with a handful of beds in small rooms set up to quarantine anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19, but Krager had hoped to add even more beds in other rooms. Unfortunately, those rooms do not meet egress requirements. Krager already has contractors scheduled to cut additional doors in those rooms to make them safe for future use.
The next time the temporary shelter could be needed may not be far away. Health experts concede that a second wave of COVID-19 is possible and the hope is that the same organizations — including Samaritan House, Flathead Warming Center, Abbie Shelter, Flathead Community Health Center, United Way, Veterans Food Pantry, ASSIST, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and the Flathead City-County Health Department — can snap into action if that happens.
But Krager is thinking even bigger. The group that made the temporary shelter a reality, the Collaborative Housing Solutions Group of Northwest Montana, will soon “debrief and discuss next steps to address and end homelessness in the Flathead,” and Krager is hopeful, choosing to see the good that could emerge from a difficult last few months.
“I have a sense that if we’re going to solve it, it’s going to take some people escalating their level of work (like they did in creating the temporary shelter),” he said. “But I think it’s possible. It is solvable. Homelessness is solvable.”
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