Merchants in downtown Kalispell are witnessing a rise in homelessness over the past nine months. Although homelessness has yet to manifest in a way that hurts business, many say that solutions should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“The first priority should be to get these people housed,” said Kyle Fort, co-owner of the book store The Bookshelf. “The next priority is to provide them with the services needed to keep them housed.”
Those working with the homeless population attribute the increase to a combination of factors, including fallout from the pandemic, an economy racked by inflation and the region’s housing crisis.
In the past six months, the Kalispell Police Department has seen a “significant” increase in calls involving homeless people, said Capt. Jordan Venezio.
“One thing that’s clear is that there will be more calls to come,” said Venezio, “and, because Montana is in the middle of such a difficult housing crisis, it’s unlikely the problem will be going away anytime soon.”
Venizio said that complaints regarding homelessness typically revolve around trespassing, loitering and sleeping in business entryways.
One business frequented by the homeless population is Pelvis, Spine and Sport, a physical therapy center. According to Amy Antes, the company’s office manager, she and her colleagues have seen a drastic increase in homeless activity since the fall. She credits a bench in front of the physical therapy center as well as an overhanging roof that provides adequate shelter from the elements as the main attractions.
Antes believes that additional shelters and other physical services, like soup kitchens, could help.
“The reason these people spend their time in alleys is because they have nowhere else to go,” Antes said. “When you’re on a fixed income or a salary that has become stagnant, and you live in a place like Montana where the price of living is rising all the time, it becomes difficult to go anywhere without having to pay for it in some way.”
IN KALISPELL’S brick-lined downtown strip, members of the business improvement district are just the most recent to look for practical solutions, what they deemed a “toolkit.” During a June 7 meeting, the district’s board discussed supporting the addition of public restrooms and potentially showers to the bustling neighborhood, pursuing greater coordination with relevant nonprofits and further outreach efforts aimed at residents.
Merchants are also looking at a promising resource in the Montana 2-1-1. The hotline connects callers to a variety of services that could aid the homeless. It has been operational in larger cities, like Billings and Missoula, since 2018.
The service arrived in Kalispell in November, after the Community Actions Partnership of Northwest Montana, a nonprofit organization that specializes in homelessness outreach, championed it.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” said Sean O’Neill, community service director for CAPNM. “The end goal of the service remains the same, get people the help they need as soon as possible.”
The hotline offers a wide range of services for people experiencing crises that are often linked homelessness, such as mental health issues, behavioral health issues and addiction issues. O’Neill said establishing the 2-1-1 number in Kalispell is a part of his organization’s larger plan to bring together the many agencies and nonprofits of the Flathead and focus their efforts on eliminating homelessness.
“What we need is to strengthen the bonds we have with agencies we know and forging new bonds with the ones we don’t,” he said. “The mission here is to get the government and the Flathead communities to pay attention to this issue that impacts all of us.”
ONE OF the most vocal advocates for the 2-1-1 number during this month’s business improvement district meeting was Kyle Waterman, a former Kalispell City Councilor who is running as a Democrat for Senate District 4, which covers the municipality and points west. Waterman, who also served on the board of directors of the Samaritan House, a local nonprofit that provides housing and services for the homeless, worries that the problem will continue to worsen if left unaddressed.
“Make no mistake — winter is coming,” he said, referring to both the colder weather and the possibility of a recession. An economic downturn, Waterman said, would compound the problems facing the valley’s homeless population.
According to Waterman, if Kalispell really wants to head off homelessness before it becomes a bigger problem, providing easy access to well-funded resources for those who need them most — a service that the 2-1-1 number was explicitly designed for — is paramount.
Despite the popularity of the hotline at the June 7 meeting of the business improvement district, at least one member acknowledged that it, like the other proposed fixes, likely wasn’t enough. Board member Marshall Noice of Noice Studio and Gallery sounded a note of caution, telling his colleagues that “many of the solutions we discussed here tonight may not be solutions at all, but Band-Aids.”
He worried that the level of Kalispell’s homeless population might fast be becoming endemic. The problem will go unallayed “until the Flathead finally addresses long held issues regarding mental health and how we treat people in this county who are in need,” Noice said.