Solving Homelessness in the Flathead

The Samaritan House recently received approval for an expansion that will include four apartment buildings and a veterans program

By Maggie Dresser
Executive Director Chris Krager of Samaritan House in Kalispell on June 11, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since the Samaritan House opened its doors at the old armory on Kalispell’s west side in 2006, Executive Director Chris Krager always had dreams of expanding the homeless shelter’s capacity across its 2.5 acres to add more units for those in a housing crisis.

Now that dream is coming to fruition in response to the valley’s high demand for housing combined with a low supply, leading to a constant waitlist at the Samaritan House.

Krager began planning the expansion process a few years ago and the Kalispell City Council recently approved a conditional use permit and a zone change for the project, giving him the green light to move forward with the buildout.

The Samaritan House’s expansion will include 16 two- and three-bedroom apartments in four brand-new apartment buildings, which Krager says will qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers, and include a playground, garden space, splash pads, a gazebo and a program for veterans.

The expansion is still in its early stages and once funds are available, the $5 million project is planned to start in 2023.

Krager says the project has received strong support from Kalispell’s city officials and community members, which he calls unusual especially since the property is across the street from Peterson Elementary School.

In a unanimous vote, the Kalispell City Council approved the expansion on Nov. 15, with councilors predicting a successful project

“I think this critical housing is really important when it comes down to having that supportive element to make sure people are moving toward success,” councilor Kyle Waterman said at the Nov. 15 meeting. “Whether they’re veterans or new to being homeless or they’re chronically homeless.”

“Two years ago, we had long conversations on this council with this community about the homeless issue in the valley and in the city … Thank you for taking initiative to do a project like this to increase your capacity and beds and I think it’s going to be a successful project and I support it fully,” councilor Chad Graham said.

In the past few years, Krager has noticed a new demographic of individuals and families needing resources at the Samaritan House, which in most cases is rooted in unaffordability and housing scarcity, he said.

“There’s just not enough housing,” Krager said. “They can’t find a place. We provide everything we can so they can save money but lately we have families that save up five paychecks and they have the money, they just can’t find a place to rent. That’s the new characteristic and this has been developing in the Flathead.”

The lack of housing is causing Krager’s clients to extend their stay at the Samaritan House beyond the 30-day timeline and they consistently apply for the 10-day extensions, creating a backlog. The true average length of stay is three months, he said.

Krager hopes to address this housing inventory problem in the Flathead with section 8 housing vouchers, a federal program that limits rent rates.

The Samaritan House currently has 32 studio and one-bedroom units on its campus down the street that are not under the section 8 housing vouchers; however, Krager calls them “dirt cheap,” ranging from $225 to $460 a month with all utilities and furniture included.

Rendering for Samaritan House expansion. Image by Jackola

And while the homeless shelter offers affordable housing on its premises, Krager says the facility is unique since it also offers 25 dorm-style units of transitional housing and 45 beds, which are designed as temporary solutions.

“The new units will be awesome because we’ve never been able to serve larger families,” Krager said. “There’s all of these different programs that we offer and in other cities, the programs don’t offer everything … It creates our own continuum and a linear development of events. In theory, someone could land in shelter, go to transitional units and go to permanent apartments.”

The facility currently has two case workers who help clients with this process, and Krager is looking to hire two more along with two social workers once the expansion takes off.

In addition to the increased capacity, the Samaritan House is also expanding its veterans program in a collaboration with Veterans Affairs services in both Kalispell and Helena to help permanently solve homelessness for their clients.

“This project creates more affordable housing and more scenarios for homeless veterans,” Krager said. “Kalispell is the largest city in the state of Montana with no dedicated veteran housing.”

Phase 1 of the expansion is projected to begin in 2023, which will include building the four apartment buildings with 16 units. Phase 2 will include building office spaces, rerouting doors, removing the chain-linked fence and barbed wire and adding a sidewalk.

“We can fix homelessness in the Flathead Valley,” Krager said. “We don’t have enough housing but we have the ability to fix that.”

For more information, visit www.samaritanhousemt.com.

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