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Flathead Warming Center Announces Grand Opening

Following extensive renovations, the low barrier shelter will open its doors Oct. 20 and provide beds and assistance to those seeking to become housing ready

By Skye Lucas
Flathead Warming Center under construction on Oct. 13, 2021. The center will open later in the month. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Homeless residents can soon find shelter from winter’s bitter nights at the Flathead Warming Center’s (FWC) new emergency facility. The nonprofit will host its grand opening Oct. 16 and begin operating Oct. 20.

Since 2019, the seasonal shelter has served more than 300 people during about 250 winter nights. The nonprofit ensures low barrier access, so that anyone, regardless of personal beliefs or barriers to housing security, has a safe place to sleep through the night.

The organization first operated out of Christ Church Episcopal, where the maximum capacity was limited to 20 guests and was frequently full. A larger, independent facility with additional resources was desperately needed.

 “People need a place where they know they can go to and be safe; that’s the warming center,” Tonya Horn, executive director and cofounder, said.

In August 2020, Horn and Luke Heffernan, chairman and cofounder, discovered an auto shop, formerly Norby’s Car Care, for sale and launched a capital campaign to make it theirs. The nonprofit raised $750,000 and, following the campaign, it purchased the facility and now will be able to provide more than just a place to sleep.  

“For the majority, we serve people who are not housing ready, but we want to be able to offer a continuum of care so that we can work with our guests to become housing ready,” Horn said.

Whether an individual uses the overnight shelter, they can now receive a mailing address, access to a coin-operated shower, washer, dryer and a refrigerator. Hair stylists and other beauticians will occasionally volunteer, too, and offer their services to guests.

The shelter will open every evening at 6 p.m. FWC has also partnered with the public transportation service Mountain Climber, which will make the shelter its final destination during seasonal operations to drop off individuals in need of housing. The facility will also run a resource center from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., where residents can access job services and vocational rehabilitation on-site.

Moving forward, Horn hopes for more community partnerships with local agencies and businesses.

“My dream is that the volunteer who hands an individual their towel to take a shower is the same volunteer who can provide counseling,” Horn said. “That would be huge, because a majority of the folks we serve experience some sort of disability, be it mental, physical or addiction.”

Horn and Heffernan’s paths collided in an aisle at T.J. Maxx, when Horn overheard a conversation between Heffernan and his friend about building a low barrier shelter. Horn, who had just moved to the valley, had managed a low barrier shelter in Bozeman.

“God put us together,” Horn said. “He’s a contractor and I knew how low barrier worked. From that moment onward, we began working together. We met up in coffee shops and right away we did something about it.”

Heffernan, who previously volunteered with the community kitchen, Feeding the Flathead, would find people hiding in pews at the end of meals. On several occasions, he drove them around in search of a safe place to sleep, but soon discovered that different shelters posed different barriers.

“Obstacles that might keep people out of other models of shelter won’t keep them out of FWC,” Heffernan said. “A guest can come intoxicated or with acute mental health symptoms; with an animal and without an ID.”

Their behavior, however, will determine one’s ability to stay. As a low barrier, the group has high expectations for how guests act.

 “When we communicate what’s expected of them, they usually rise to those expectations,” Horn said.

FWC’s grand opening will take place Oct. 16 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and offer interactive tours.

Those interested in volunteering or donating are encouraged to call Horn at (406) 250-8652 or email warmandsafe@flatheadwarmingcenter.org.

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