Continental Divides

Grab a Dishtowel or Three

Opinions surrounding hot-button issues like how to effectively deal with homeless populations have been known to change when one has a better grasp of the facts

By John McCaslin

Amid calls for more affordable housing in the Flathead Valley comes word that Kalispell’s Samaritan House will break ground this spring on low-cost multifamily and veterans’ housing, as well as pop-up shelter beds.

The prolonged sub-zero temperatures this month speaks to the importance of the latter, what with our homeless population – at last count 354 and growing – surpassing every Montana metropolis except Missoula.

“Kalispell is the largest city in the state of Montana with zero dedicated homeless housing,” observed Samaritan’s Executive Director Chris Krager. “So, we’re going to fix that.”

Snubbing, in other words, a misguided claim in 2023 by Flathead County commissioners that providing shelter to the needy will only attract more homeless to the valley.

“When a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals,” the three commissioners opined in a letter to Flathead residents. “Therefore, it is our hope that our community will be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle.”

The Flathead chieftains went so far as to assert “many times, that spare change that you give to the homeless individual standing at the intersection is used for drugs and alcohol.”

As if homeless people aren’t entitled like everybody else in the county to a perfectly legal toke or snort to take the edge off.

That said, opinions surrounding hot-button issues like how to effectively deal with homeless populations have been known to change when one has a better grasp of the facts.

Consider Cindie Jobe and Curt Shugart (Curt and I worked together at KOFI Radio in the day), a married couple who volunteer at the aforementioned Flathead Warming Center in Kalispell.

“For me, it levels the playing field,” Cindie told me of the well-utilized shelter. “We’re all human beings, with similar needs, and it feels really gratifying for me to serve people that are chastised, abused, looked down upon.

“And I’m not saying I’ve not done that before,” she acknowledged. “I’ve learned a lot and will continue to learn. It’s just a humbling experience.”

Curt said his understanding of the homeless plight has similarly evolved since volunteering at the center.

“These are some of our neighbors, you know, who for whatever reason have been ostracized, estranged from their families, fallen on hard times, lost their jobs, priced out of renting or buying in this valley because we all know how expensive that is,” he said.

“Some of these people have jobs, they’re working their butts off. Tough jobs like washing dishes in restaurants, working in the casinos. We’ve met a quite a few of them who actually work all day, get off from an eight- or 10-hour shift, and they’ve got nowhere to go. So they come here to the shelter.”

Founded on Christian principles, the non-profit warming center provides disadvantaged people with everything from laundry services and hot meals, to showers and 50 beds in a comfortable and caring environment.

“It’s a safe haven—there are women who stay there, there are entire families that stay there with their kids,” Cindie pointed out. It’s clean, it’s welcoming, and there’s a warmth, an energy of ‘we’re family here, and we’re welcoming.’ I find that to be the case every time we’re there. The staff is very kind—I mean yes, there are rules and guidelines that the people have to follow, but the staff is very kind and helpful and respectful to them.”

“And it’sreciprocated,” Curt interjected. “I mean you see it. The amount of appreciation we’re on the receiving end of – I just had no idea it would be anywhere near this much. They [homeless people] make a point to come up to us and thank us for being there as volunteers.

“Generally, the rules are you get done eating and you go over to the sink and wash your own dishes, dry them, and put them in the cupboard, all labeled where everything goes. And some of them are just insistent, ‘No, no, no, I can wash my own dishes!’ And I say we’re happy to do it, we’re here washing all these other dishes. ‘Are you sure?’ They just don’t want to impose on us as volunteers.”

 “These are human beings that need a hand up. And helping them helps me to appreciate the blessings we have,” said Cindie. “The reality is we do have homeless in the community. We need to face that … and we need to work with them as human beings and not castigate them as these awful people that are ruining our community.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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