Local Homeless are Not Outsiders

We need leadership that is willing to creatively engage with a social issue

By Charlie Knuth

Perhaps you have seen the plans outlined by Mayor Mark Johnson and Kalispell’s city manager to “dissuade homeless people from congregating in public spaces?”

The last eight months, this has meant locking bathrooms and fencing off public gathering places. Recently, the city has shut off the water fountains near Depot Park (all of the water fountains in Woodland Park and Lawrence Park have already been removed). They have also cut off electricity in Depot Park so that the homeless cannot charge their electronic devices. Finally, they plan on introducing “hostile architecture” to park benches and buildings to prevent the unhoused from sitting, lying, and resting in public spaces for any length of time.

This is no small thing. Throughout history, government actors have used access to bathrooms, water fountains, public pools, and locker rooms to marginalize women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and transgender individuals. For example, the first public toilet for men predated the first toilet for women by decades because a women’s restroom challenged the convention of a woman’s “place” as being in the home. The use of public amenities became central to the civil rights movement because to have equal and equitable access to bathrooms and water fountains is an issue of basic human dignity.

It is a perceptual error to think of the homeless as outsiders, those who are not members of our community. We find ourselves in the throes of a housing crisis, and if one actually goes to Depot Park and speaks with these individuals, you will find that most of them hail from Montana and the Flathead specifically. 

Mayor Johnson believes that families, nonprofits, and religious groups should “get off the dime and do something.” We have been, and we’ll continue to do so in the Lord’s assurance that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

But it is not our job to create policies that address the needs of the unhoused. That is the responsibility of the lowest tiers of public administration, a duty and task that many other towns of 30,000 seem perfectly willing and able to perform. We need leadership that is willing to creatively engage with a social issue, not politicians keen on preventing the homeless from performing activities attendant to human survival.

Charlie Knuth

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