In the last four years, staff at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, which borders Depot Park in downtown Kalispell, have noticed an increase in people who appear to be homeless congregating in the public space next to the office.
While most people in Depot Park keep to themselves, Chamber President and CEO Lorraine Clarno told city councilors in September that there are certain individuals who exhibit unstable behavior, resulting in unsafe situations and has led staff to consider relocating the chamber.
“This summer, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the folks using the private property and the park and the Parkline greenspace north of the building,” Clarno said at the meeting. “They are assertive, they are aggressive, and their behavior demonstrates to me and my observations an increase in addiction and mental health issues. It’s truly sad and a community issue that we need to get in front of.”
Clarno said chamber staff and guests have told her that they feel unsafe entering the building, and if their aggressive behavior continues next summer, she says the chamber will likely relocate.
Since the private property line is difficult to distinguish, Clarno said some folks often trespass on the chamber property. She asks some people to move, but she’s never formally pressed charges. Law enforcement is often called to Depot Park for a variety of issues, such as camping near the Parkline Trail, and Clarno said while the Kalispell Police Department is helpful, they can only do so much to solve the issue.
As winter approaches, Clarno said many of these individuals will relocate to the Flathead Warming Center, which opens this month, giving chamber staff time to come up with solutions for their business while also helping homeless populations.
On Oct. 6, the chamber will meet with stakeholders at the Flathead Warming Center, including the Samaritan House and other nonprofit partners, to address issues surrounding homelessness.
“I believe there’s a fine line between compassion and enablement,” Clarno told the Beacon. “We are hoping through this group that we can work to define our community value around homelessness.”
Clarno would like to see funding for mental health services funneled into the Flathead, where some facilities at Western Montana Mental Health Center, which is funded through the state, have shut down due to staffing shortages.
“I want to see where those dollars are flowing … if we have two facilities closed for a couple of years, it’s time to come together and we just need to find out how we can get these services reopened,” Clarno said. “It’s truly tough to see what’s happening. We have folks who are to a good degree choosing this lifestyle and then there are people with severe addiction and mental health issues.”
In addition to helping homeless populations, Clarno also hopes the chamber can stay at its current location.
“We will use the winter to look at our options, but this is an ideal location in so many ways,” Clarno said. “It’s the community landmark and in the center of town. We would love to make it possible to stay, but if we cannot make everyone safe and happy, we will have to look at other options.”
A meeting will be held on Oct. 6 at 8:30 a.m. at the Flathead Warming Center to brainstorm potential solutions.
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