How Much Worse Off Would Community be Without Warming Center?

It is troubling that several council members have already floated the idea of revoking the center’s conditional use permit

By Sonny Mazzullo

Kalispell City Council’s upcoming work session to discuss challenges surrounding homelessness demonstrates they are doing their job. Concerns raised by residents and business owners neighboring the Warming Center are alarming and need to be addressed. However, it is troubling that several council members have already floated the idea of revoking the Warming Center’s conditional use permit. Approaching the upcoming work session with the preconceived notion that the Warming Center makes our community’s challenges with homelessness worse belies the reality of the crisis at hand.

The Flathead Warming Center opened the winter of 2019-20. Initially, the center sheltered 20 individuals a night in the basement of a church. At the time, there was a growing need for a low barrier shelter, which many social workers attribute to a devastating set of budget cuts in 2017 that gutted services to our neighbors struggling with disabilities, mental illness, and substance abuse. As the effects of these cuts compounded, and just as the Warming Center opened, covid hit. The subsequent influx of new residents wreaked havoc on our housing market and pushed our community (and many others) far from any semblance of affordability. To make matters worse, the same surge in real estate values led to the purchase and shuttering of several motels that accommodated long term residents, forcing out people who were already living on the brink of homelessness. By the time the Warming Center moved to its current location on North Meridian in October 2021, the housing landscape of the Flathead had seismically shifted and the more-than-doubled sheltering capacity was nowhere close to adequate.

With that context in mind, it is plain to me that the question councilors should be asking at this work session isn’t “how does the Warming Center hurt our community,” but rather “how much worse off would our community be without it?” The traumatizing accounts shared by residents and businesses on North Meridian are evidence of a subset (of a subset) of our community that has lost its dignity. The Warming Center does not provide services to every homeless person. It does not have the capacity to do so, and not every person experiencing homelessness wants to stay there. Surely, some of the negative behaviors can be attributed to guests, but not all. And it is important to remember, the Warming Center’s very mission is to restore dignity. By providing for basic human needs, and helping connect individuals to services to pull themselves out of homelessness, the Warming Center helps to solve the very challenges some council members are accusing it of creating.

The correlation of the rise of homelessness in the Flathead and the Warming Center’s opening is no doubt a public relations mess. But, from a public service perspective, it is an incredible blessing. How much worse off would our community be without the Flathead Warming Center?

Sonny Mazzullo