Residents Divided Over Impacts of Flathead Warming Center

After a high volume of complaints from neighbors who reside near the low-barrier homeless shelter, the Kalispell City Council on May 13 hosted a work session to review the facility’s conditional use permit, which they could potentially amend or revoke

By Maggie Dresser
Kalispell City Council chambers overflow with attendees as the council holds a work session meeting to discuss the city’s conditional use permit for the Flathead Warming Shelter on May 13, 2024. Photo by Hunter D’Antuono

The Kalispell City Council on Monday night reviewed a conditional use permit for the Flathead Warming Center, which was approved in 2020, to determine if the low-barrier homeless shelter is complying with guidelines and if it’s appropriate to amend or revoke the permit.

Prompted by a high volume of complaints from neighbors and business owners near the Flathead Warming Center on North Meridian Road, Councilor Chad Graham previously requested the work session along with heat maps of law enforcement activity in the area to determine if the facility complies with the permit.

Kalispell residents in recent months have described a transformation of their neighborhood since the center opened, which includes a spike in crime, drug use, trespassing and human waste.

The work session drew dozens of residents who filled the council chambers with overflow that filtered into the lobby as community members stood divided over their attitudes toward the low-barrier shelter. Emotional testimony stretched the meeting to nearly four-and-a-half hours with comments that ranged from praise toward the warming center to others who felt service providers enabled unhoused residents.

To address concerns over the uptick in crime in the area, City Manager Doug Russell presented law enforcement call analysis data for Kalispell, which included trespassing, disorderly conduct, welfare checks and criminal mischief calls. The data compared and mapped two three-year time periods from 2018 to 2020, which represents the three years before the warming center opened, and 2021 to 2023, which represents the three years after the facility opened.

According to the call data, there was a 73% increase in welfare checks near the warming center over that time compared to a 52% increase citywide. There was also a 28% increase in criminal mischief calls near the warming center compared to a 1.2% citywide.

“What we are looking at is a percentage of change, to the three years before the warming center opened to the three years after the warming center opened and just looking at the change between those two time periods,” Russell said.

But some councilors and public members criticized the data, arguing it was skewed and said it was unclear if homeless people were responsible for the criminal activity. Homeless advocates also said it was unfair to blame the warming center for outside factors like shrinking mental health services, the spike in population growth and the lack of housing inventory.

“The warming center was approved just after mental health services in the community were cut and just when housing prices spiked and soon two long-term stay hotels were closed in our community,” Councilor Ryan Hunter said. “Our homeless population spiked as a result, as did the impacts on our community from the population increase. It is important however not to mistake correlation with causation.”

People looking to stay at the Flathead Warming Center for the night gather outside the center on the evening of April 25, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

But Graham argued the high concentration of homeless individuals near the warming center is causing distress among neighbors and he felt that Executive Director Tonya Horn was not abiding by the rules that were outlined in the conditional use permit.

Graham said complaints like being spit in the face, loitering in front of businesses, yelling, sexual acts, trespassing on private property and negative impacts on children prompted him to revisit the permit, and he believes Horn has not been managing the situation.

For example, Graham pointed to Horn’s application, which said the center would not introduce homelessness to the area or attract non-local individuals.

“This was for Kalispell locals,” Graham said. “In my opinion that was my understanding that it was for Kalispell and to help Kalispell locals – that’s how it started. I think it’s grown into a something you can’t recognize anymore.”

Graham also argued Horn was not communicating with concerned neighbors to address negative behaviors of warming center guests as she promised in the permit.

Councilor Sam Nunnally, who is also the director of the Flathead County Fairgrounds, said homeless people frequently display disruptive behavior and he often cleans up human waste and used needles on the property and he regularyl contacts the Kalispell Police Department. He said when he does reach out to the warming center, no solutions are ever presented.

Horn responded to the complaints during public comment, acknowledging that homelessness impacts the community and solutions must happen through dialogue.

“Our perspective should not be viewed as being in opposition of our neighbors,” Horn said. “We do not defend anyone who has engaged in criminal activity, and we do not defend criminals, although we’re being blamed for the criminal activity … because we’re being blamed, my heart has to tell you that we’re sorry, but I don’t know how I can control that.”

Horn felt it was unfair that the community placed blame on the warming center for circumstances out of her control and she reiterated that many of her clients are severely mentally ill and do not have access to mental health services.

“I did not know that when we became established, so many services and opportunities for individuals experiencing homelessness would be gone,” Horn said. “At the time of our application, I did not know that law enforcement, the hospital and other first responders would soon lack the resources that they once had, especially the resources of where to take individuals in crisis. The Flathead Warming Center serves individuals in crisis and many of those are severely mentally ill. We are a last resort in our community.”

Dozens of upset neighbors spoke during public comment expressing frustration with the warming center, some who said service providers enabled the homeless population. Other neighbors said they did not feel impacted by the homeless while some understood the need for a low barrier facility, but said it didn’t belong in their neighborhood.

“What this is doing for the homeless people – that is wonderful – just get it out of my neighborhood,” one resident said.

An employee of the Vision Clinic on Meridian Road spoke about the negative impacts she felt the warming center had on business and said staff members sometimes don’t feel safe. She recalled an instance when a man came inside the clinic and brandished a tire iron, and she said a panic button has been installed in the building.

Political candidates also used the work session as an opportunity to voice their concerns for the community, including Shaun Pandina a Republican who is running for House District 7, and current House District 11 Republican Rep. Tanner Smith, who is also running for governor.

Kalispell City Council chambers overflow with attendees as the council holds a work session meeting to discuss the city’s conditional use permit for the Flathead Warming Shelter on May 13, 2024. Photo by Hunter D’Antuono

“Some things I would like to see as governor, we need to double down on these NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” Smith said. “If you’re gonna operate a homeless shelter, you guys can pass an ordinance where you drug and piss test these residents. That will get these bad actors and the people that have the bad outcomes out of the state.”

“We want to help the folks that need help, but if you’re a bad actor that’s panhandling, getting drunk and badgering our women and children, you need to get out of our state,” Smith added.

Pandina, too, said he was against low barrier facilities.

“There’s other shelters in the area that seem to be doing a good job,” Pandina said. “Ray of Hope – they’re not getting the kinds of complaints that this one is and the main difference that I see is the low barrier aspect of this shelter.”

Flathead Warming Center board member Nick Aemisegger, who is also the managing attorney at the Office of the Public Defender in Kalispell, said that many of his clients need a low barrier service because of the lack of mental health resources in the Flathead Valley. He said that in his career as a public defender in Kalispell, the access to mental health is at an all-time low and there is a record number of mentally ill people in jail.

“We have people decompensating all around us because they’re not getting the mental health services that they desperately need and that’s what people are seeing in this community, “Aemiseggar said. “And I will tell you that the warming center has to deal that too. It’s profoundly sad because I have seen people throughout the course of my career rebound from being in that position, take medications, come back to the community, have a case manager and be productive citizens. If you know somebody that has a severe mental illness like bipolar schizophrenia, they don’t have insight into their condition. They don’t have help.”

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