Kalispell’s Homeless Task Force Report Draws Criticism from Nonprofit Officials

Mayor formed the task force in January to help combat homelessness in Kalispell; council reviewed report at city work session

By Maggie Dresser
Kalispell City Hall. Beacon file photo

After Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson directed the formation of a Homeless Task Force earlier this year, a report on its findings concluded that there is limited correlation between affordable housing and homelessness, drawing criticism from nonprofit organizations, who were also concerned that the task force didn’t include representatives from the industry.

The report was reviewed at a Kalispell City Council work session on Oct. 26.

The task force consisted of former city councilors Rod Kuntz and Jim Atkinson, City Manager Doug Russell, Planning Director Jared Nygren, Pastors Scott Thompson and Miriam Mauritzen, community member Thomas Rygg and former Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall. The group found that investigating the issue “falls at the feet of the stakeholders, the homeless assistance professionals, in collaboration with private and public partners,” according to the report.

While officials from nonprofits including the Samaritan House and Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana (CAPNM) were appreciative that the task force was initiated and that homelessness is being addressed, they were concerned the report misrepresented the homeless population and its issues.

“That’s really alarming because this will be the document of reference (and) it doesn’t represent most of the nonprofits or really any shelters,” said Jamie Quinn, the executive director of the Flathead Food Bank.

The report indicates that in 2019 there were 40 unsheltered individuals, according to data compiled from Point in Time surveys at http://mthomelessdata.com.

“I am the one who gave the number 40 as the number of beds that I believe the Flathead Warming Center would need in order to not turn anyone away,” said Tonya Horn of the warming center. “This number should not be mistaken for any individuals who are sleeping outside. There are individuals who will not come to the warming center who are sleeping outside. From my evaluation because of the mental illness (component), 40 is too low of a number for you to accept.”

There was also criticism regarding the lack of nonprofit affiliates involved in the task force.

“We did want to stay away from industry bias and I did think it served us well to do that,” Kuntz said. “We had candid conversations that I don’t think would have taken place if we had stakeholders on this task force.”

However, Councilor Ryan Hunter was critical of the task force’s participants, and suggested it should have included service providers directly involved with homeless populations.

“This idea that having the task force without any professional expertise on it, I think was a mistake honestly,” Hunter said. “The first paragraph of the report we were told this was because there was a desire to avoid industry bias and avoid cognitive dissonance. I think that’s frankly an insult to professionals that work on homelessness.”

Kuntz also noted his “frustrations of trying to solve everything with housing and legislation,” labeling the correlation between affordable housing and homelessness as a “myth” in the report, while nonprofit officials argued that affordable housing is the first step to battling homelessness. The report also listed “lifestyle choices,” including lack of budget knowledge, discretionary expenditures and addictions as reasons for homelessness.

Councilor Kyle Waterman suggested the city should utilize the Crisis Intervention Grant and develop a system for warm pass-offs between homeless populations and law enforcement to avoid sending individuals in crisis to jails.

“What law enforcement needs is one place to go when they are having a crisis with somebody,” Waterman said. “And they want to be able to be doing a warm pass-off to an agency. We need to develop a system to do that.”

But despite the criticism, Kuntz defended the report and said the task force is done with its work.

“Officially, as of tonight, the task force is finished with its work,” he said. “I resign as the co-chairman and the issue is therefore moot.”

To view the report, visit https://www.kalispell.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_10262020-525.

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

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