Flathead Warming Center to Respond to Complaints at Formal Hearing

The City of Kalispell will host the hearing on July 1 to give warming center officials an opportunity to respond to allegations brought forth by the city council, which will decide whether to revoke the low-barrier shelter’s conditional use permit

By Maggie Dresser
Clients 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

The Kalispell City Council on July 1 will host a formal hearing as part of a legal process to direct a decision on potentially revoking or amending the Flathead Warming Center’s conditional use permit, which some councilors and residents say is not being adhered to.

City officials chose to move forward with the process following the council’s May 28 work session where multiple members supported holding the hearing after listening to concerns of neighbors who both opposed and supported the revocation of the permit.

The work session followed a public hearing that overflowed council chambers on May 13 where dozens of residents lined up at the podium to voice their opinions on the the warming center’s impacts on the neighborhood.

The hearing, which will be closed to public comment, will allow representatives from the Flathead Warming Center to respond to allegations that were spearheaded by Councilor Chad Graham, accusing the organization of not being responsive or accountable as it originally stated in the conditional use permit following widespread complaints.

Graham argued that, according to the conditional use permit, Flathead Warming Center Executive Director Tonya Horn has not upheld promises that were made in the application, which includes responsiveness to neighbors when her clients are causing disruption.

Major concerns of common warming center client behavior include loitering, littering, leaving behind human waste, a lack of transportation in and out of the neighborhood, trespassing on private property and other criminal activity.

“We have the trash, you’ve got the needles, you’ve got the drugs – none of that is being a good neighbor,” Graham said.

Graham also said neighbors described warming center officials as dismissive when approached with issues.

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

City Manager Doug Russell reiterated that while the issues and causes of homelessness is divisive and complicated, the council has the obligation to focus on the conditional use permit and evaluate how the warming center is impacting the surrounding neighborhoods. He also reminded council that the area of the city is not already zoned for a homeless shelter.

“That is the impetus of the discussion component, if there wasn’t a conditional use permit related to it, it’d be a use by right,” Russell said.

Russell also said Horn had accused the city of “moving the goalposts” in reference to the potential revocation, which he described as troublesome.

Issues also centered around differing interpretations of a 150-foot radius of property owners surrounding the warming center that is described in the permit. However, warming center officials said in a letter that the city expanded that boundary, according to Russell.

“I want to address that because it was (said) numerous times that we’re moving the goalpost around what is being termed as a 150-foot standard … they say the (conditional use permit) standard of a neighbor is a 150-foot radius. That’s just not accurate. There’s no standard for a neighbor in our conditional use permitting process.” Russell said.

“It’s just not an accurate representation and it’s misleading and it’s also misleading by their own documentation,” Russell added.

Flathead Warming Center cofounder and chair Luke Heffernan defended the organization’s responsiveness to neighbors and said they have done what they can to mitigate negative behavior.

“There are legitimate concerns that I’m sorry about but there’s also a lot of falsehood and that’s really the toughest part about it, is figuring out between the biases and misconceptions, what is truth,” Heffernan said.

Councilors were divided on the impacts of the warming center, and while most supported the efforts of the low-barrier facility, some members felt the negative consequences outweighed the positive.

“I’m very glad I wasn’t a part of approving this … I appreciate what Ms. Horn is trying to do. I think she’s a hell of a lady with her compassion. I think she cares. I just think it’s overwhelming. It’s not the right neighborhood. The rules have not been followed or people wouldn’t be complaining so much. There wouldn’t be all these issues,” Councilor Jed Fisher said.

Other councilors, however, felt that revoking the conditional use permit would make matters worse and the city should work with the warming center to come up with solutions.

“I heard public comment, I heard the for and the against,” Councilor Jessica Dahlman said. “Nobody wants that in their yard, nobody wants that. I completely agree that something needs to change. I also did take into consideration the responses that we did get from the warming center, and I feel like they are wanting to be part of the answer to this problem, and I feel like we should give them that chance.”

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