Traders in central Kalispel have witnessed rising homelessness over the past nine months. Although homelessness has not yet manifested itself in a way that harms businesses, many say decisions must come to the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“The first priority should be to accommodate these people,” said Kyle Fort, co-owner of The Bookshelf. “The next priority is to provide them with the services they need to accommodate them.”
Those working with the homeless attribute the increase to a combination of factors, including the effects of the pandemic, the inflation-ridden economy and the housing crisis in the region.
In the last six months, the Kalispel Police Department has seen a “significant” increase in calls involving homeless people, said Captain Jordan Venezio.
“One thing is clear, there will be more calls,” Venezio said, “and because Montana is in the midst of such a difficult housing crisis, the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon.”
Venicio said homelessness complaints usually revolved around border crossings, going crazy and sleeping in business entrances.
One business visited by the homeless is the Pelvis, Spine and Sports Physical Therapy Center. According to Amy Antes, the company’s office manager, she and her colleagues have seen a dramatic increase in homeless activity since the fall. It considers the main attractions a bench in front of the physiotherapy center, as well as a canopy that provides adequate shelter from the elements.
Antes believes that additional shelters and other physical services, such as soup kitchens, could help.
“The reason these people spend their time in the streets is that they have nowhere else to go,” said Antes. “When you have a fixed income or a stagnant salary and you live in a place like Montana where the cost of living is rising all the time, it becomes difficult to go anywhere without having to pay for it in some way.”
In the brick-lined central strip of KALISPELL, members of the business improvement area are the latest to look for practical solutions, what they consider to be “tools”. During a meeting on June 7th, the district board discussed support for adding public toilets and potential showers to the bustling neighborhood, pursuing greater coordination with relevant non-profit organizations and further outreach efforts aimed at residents.
Traders are also looking for a promising resource in Montana 2-1-1. The hotline connects callers with various services that could help the homeless. He has been working in major cities, such as Billings and Missoula, since 2018.
The service arrived in Kalispel in November after the Northwest Montana Community Action Partnership, a non-profit organization specializing in the distribution of homeless people, backed it.
“We’re not trying to rediscover the wheel here,” Sean O’Neill, director of public services, told CAPNM. “The ultimate goal of the service remains the same, to provide people with the help they need as soon as possible.”
The hotline offers a wide range of services for people experiencing crises that are often associated with homelessness, such as mental health problems, behavioral problems and addiction problems. O’Neill said establishing Calispel 2-1-1 is part of his organization’s larger plan to bring together many Flathead agencies and nonprofits and focus on eliminating homelessness.
“What we need is to strengthen the ties we have with the agencies we know and to build new relationships with those we don’t know,” he said. “The mission here is to get the Flathead government and communities to address this issue that affects us all.
ONE of the most vocal defenders of the 2-1-1 number at this month’s meeting to improve business was Kyle Waterman, a former Kalispel city councilor running for Democrat for Senate District 4, which covers the municipality and points to westwards. Waterman, who was also on the board of directors of Samaritan House, a local nonprofit that provides housing and services to the homeless, worries the problem will continue to worsen if left unchecked.
“Make no mistake – winter is coming,” he said, referring to both the colder weather and the possibility of a recession. The economic downturn, Waterman said, will complicate the problems facing the valley’s homeless population.
According to Waterman, if Kalispell really wants to end homelessness before it becomes a bigger problem, providing easy access to well-funded resources for those who need them most – a service for which the number 2-1- 1 is explicitly intended – is of paramount importance.
Despite the popularity of the business improvement area’s June 7 hotline, at least one member acknowledged that it, like other proposed adjustments, may not be enough. The Marshall Noice of Noice studio and gallery board member sounded cautious, telling colleagues that “many of the solutions we discussed here tonight may not be solutions at all, but adhesive plasters.”
He worried that the level of Kalispel’s homeless population could quickly become endemic. The issue will remain unresolved, “until Flathead finally addresses long-standing mental health issues and how we treat people in this county who are in need,” Neuss said.