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Kalispell City Council holds hearing on proposed park ordinance

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Kalispell City Council holds hearing on proposed park ordinance

Jan 24, 2023 | 6:10 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Kalispell City Council holds hearing on proposed park ordinance
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A view of U.S. Highway 93 in Kalispell taken in 2007 (Photo by Katie Brady via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell presented pictures of unhoused people and human feces in Depot Park during a meeting on a proposed ordinance Monday night.

“I’m going to go through a series of pictures, and this may be the most troubling thing I’ve done as a city manager in 20 years,” he said.

Russell said that although he didn’t find it an enjoyable thing to show individuals in vulnerable situations, he thought it was important to frame the issue, an ordinance to limit the time a person could spend in the park, in terms of what is happening in public spaces. The city recently fenced off the park’s gazebo responding to complaints of the unhoused population using the space, as reported by the Daily Inter Lake.

The Kalispell City Council didn’t take action during the work session Monday night but Mayor Mark Johnson said that the proposed ordinance, which would limit the amount of time a person could spend in the park without a permit to 90 minutes, would be on the upcoming council meeting agenda.

This meeting came just days after Flathead County Commissioners signed a letter, published in the Flathead Beacon, titled “Stop Enabling Homeless Population.” The letter spoke about the rise of homelessness in Kalispell, attributing it to the opening of a low barrier warming center in the city.

“Make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some,” the letter read. “In fact, many of the homeless encountered in our parks, streets, and alleys consist of a progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject help and live unmoored.”

The first person to make public comment was Tonya Horn, the executive director of the Flathead Warming Center.

“I think it’s important that we approach things with solutions and that’s what I’ve come here tonight to do,” she said. “Because the problem is much bigger – much, much bigger – than a gazebo and Depot Park.”

She said some would rather be outdoors due to past experiences and described a man she knows who just recently had to have his foot amputated as a result of severe frostbite.

“Our local system is broken and void of the resources we need,” she said. “The ill among us are not getting the treatment that they need, and it’s coming out sideways, and it’s ugly. We are seeing this being played out now in our public spaces.”

Horn was one of many in the public who asked, where will they go?

Several of the owners of businesses near Depot Park were among the over 40 people who spoke before the council. Some spoke to the stress on staff and to customers who felt unsafe.

“We’ve had to order bodily fluid cleanup kits to clean up the excrement and the blood splattered across our bathrooms,” said the manager of the Starbucks across from the park. “We’ve had to order locks and additional building security measures in order to protect the staff and our customers.”

Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman said compared to 2019, there have been three times as many citations in Depot Park. He said citations were for open container violations, disorderly conduct and others.

More than one resident during public comment mentioned that many in the community are armed, and that with tensions rising there could be an incident and they fear potential violence.

Dorothy Williams, a local senior citizen, said she quoted one of Montana’s representatives in the U.S. Congress, Republican Matt Rosendale, who said “if you want to have change, make change.” She told the council to “grow a pair” and “do what has to be done.”

“Quite frankly, I want them gone. I want them gone from Kalispell. I want them gone from Montana. I want them gone from my country. And I don’t give a rat’s patootie how you get them gone, but I want them gone,” she said. “These are not people that respect themselves. They don’t have the same rights. I am sorry. I said it. And I mean it.”

Flathead County saw some of the population boom in the past decade in Montana, with a nearly 15% increase in population in the county. However, there was only a 6.2% increase in housing supply.

Fair market rents climbed since 2019, then leveled in 2022, according to data from the U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2022 they were roughly 10% higher than in 2019.

Evelyn Pittsley testified before the council saying she had formerly been homeless, having previously stayed at the warming center, and was only able to get off the streets because she found affordable housing.

Pittsleysaid it hurts her that there is not enough affordable housing because she knows people who are still homeless and trying their hardest. She said she makes $11 an hour and it’s a struggle for her to make ends meet.

“I just want there to be more options for the homeless people,” she said. “I don’t want to kick them out. I don’t want to give them the boot. There are people that are struggling and need help.”

The council also looked at Whitefish’s current code for mitigating park usage, titled “Excessive Personal Property Interfering the Use of Public Property” which in part prohibits behavior in the park that “causes an area to be uninviting to others.” In Whitefish it’s punishable as a misdemeanor.

“It’s working in Whitefish,” said councilperson Chad Graham. “They’re not having a meeting, a packed meeting, in Whitefish about this issue.”

Other measures discussed by council members earlier in the evening included a potential safe disposal box for used needles as well as taking a “housing first” initiative, where you provide the homeless with housing and behavioral health services on the ground floor. A project of that nature is being constructed in Great Falls in the Baatz building by Neighborworks Great Falls.

Mayor Johnson said that the public should also be looking to what legislators in Helena are doing to local control as it could impact how local governments respond to issues like homelessness.

“I ask everybody in here to pay attention to what’s happening in Helena,” he said “It’s the biggest assault on local control you will ever see, and the Republi-crats need to stop.”