The housing encampment at the First United Methodist Church in Great Falls on Monday. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
GREAT FALLS — Susan Raining Bird, 48, soon won’t be able to call the parking lot of the First United Methodist Church here home.
The church handed the unhoused people living there eviction notices on Monday, giving them one week’s notice to clear the property.
“Unfortunately, the City of Great Falls has served First United Methodist Church with a lawsuit requiring us to enforce this eviction,” the notice read. “The City of Great Falls refuses to tell us where you might be able to go.”
Before the eviction notices were handed out, Raining Bird’s two sons told her to stay at the encampment at the church. She said both of her sons, who still live on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, were addicts. She said she has family members indicted for distributing drugs.
“That’s the kind of lifestyle that’s over there waiting for me,” Raining Bird said.
The eviction notice means at least 35 people will again be looking for shelter.
According to an Annual Homeless Assessment Report in 2020, Montana was one of 10 states where more than two-thirds of “chronically homeless” persons were staying in locations outside of traditional shelters, behind California, Arkansas, Hawaii and Oregon.
In Montana, the number of chronically homeless people, defined in the report as an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for at least a year, increased 146 percent from 2007 to 2020, according to the report. In neighboring Idaho, the number jumped 183 percent over the same period.
Great Falls Continuum of Care Coordinator and President of United Way Gary Owen said that Great Falls has the third largest unhoused population in the state behind Billings and Missoula — 68, according to a local nonprofit — but he said the data isn’t 100 percent reliable as some of the population is transient and sometimes not willing to speak with those doing the count.
Lack of affordable housing is a statewide issue in Montana with an impact across the socioeconomic spectrum, from would-be first time homebuyers to renters. Local governments, nonprofits and other organizations have been trying to make a dent.
Gov. Greg Gianforte recently assembled a Housing Task Force, requesting in his executive order for its members to specifically focus on regulatory changes state agencies and local governments could make, as well as action the Montana Legislature could take, towards increasing housing supply.
Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly, part of this task force, said he doesn’t think that sheltering the homeless is within the scope of the task force.
“However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t bring up this topic with the hope that the state will be more involved with providing resources to this population,” he said.
In the meantime, Pastor Dawn Skerritt, who recently took over First United Methodist leadership, said the church has information on 35 people living in the encampment and went through 40 eviction notices quickly. The population grows during the evening hours, with encampment resident Ross Quick saying it doubles Skerritt’s official count to 70.
Where will people go?
A city conflicted over a camp
The encampment in the church parking lot sparked months-long debate during public comment in city commission meetings over what the future of that community’s congregated presence in the area should be. Some nearby residents and business owners argued people at the camp brought more noise and disruption, but advocates with the newly formed local nonprofit Housed Great Falls said people there also have been victims of violence.
According to Great Falls Police Capt. John Schaffer, there have been 176 calls for service to the church in 2022 as of Tuesday, up 91 percent from the total calls made in 2021. Arrests from the church are up to 25 this year, up from six in 2021, and there are over twice as many citations.
“We spend a lot of time at First United Methodist Church,” Shaffer said. “It’s a busy place.”
In June, the city sued the church in an attempt to enforce its zoning regulations around campgrounds in the downtown business core. The church let the city know in July it would be removing tents from the property in August.
During the commission’s last meeting on July 19, Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, spoke about how the encampment was impacting her business, the Dairy Queen franchise she owns with her husband, two blocks away.
“The people that use the facility there at the church come and use my Dairy Queen facility for showers,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “I come in at 10:30 in the morning and my bins are filled in my bathrooms with paper towels, and I just don’t appreciate that kind of traffic into my business in that area. I would just assume that showers are going to be provided somewhere else for these people.”
However, she said if the city were to build facilities to help the unhoused, it would just attract people from other places.
Raining Bird said that many of the folks living in the encampment have been “86’ed,” or no longer allowed, in several of the businesses in the surrounding area.
The company the church was renting portable toilets from for the unhoused at the church recently came and picked them up, Skerritt said, leaving the church scrambling to find a temporary solution until Aug. 1.
City Commissioner Joe McKenney said everyone who has spoken to him on this issue has said that the city needed to do something.
“They just didn’t think that was the right place for a homeless encampment,” he said.
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Housing in Great Falls
Quick hitch-hiked his way from Mississippi to New Jersey two months after his mom passed from cancer. The three-month journey, the “scenic route” he called it, concluded in Montana, when he bought a camper for $350.
After Aug. 1, he won’t have anywhere he can afford to park his home.
“The cheapest place that I’ve even talked to about just parking my camper’s like $650 a month,” he said. “But there’s no openings, even the places that are $900 a month, there’s no openings.”
A housing market study focused on Great Falls published in Dec. 2021 found that demand far exceeds supply in the Electric City. If the city is going to keep up, it will need to add 1,900 rentals and 2,500 for-sale units over the next 10 years.
As far as the unhoused population is concerned, the study pointed to NeighborWorks Great Falls’ renovation project of the Baatz Building downtown into 25 apartment units that will be made available to people who have experienced homelessness.
The building will provide “wrap-around” services in a housing first approach, where the unhoused are given permanent shelter along with access to services like substance abuse counseling and crisis intervention. The first floor of the Baatz Building would be dedicated to case management professionals and other services.
Studies from cities like Denver suggest that these sorts of projects are not only successful, but when a local government invests in these projects, they can offset costs that would have been spent on local emergency services.
“That doesn’t help people tonight, tomorrow night,” said Kenton Miller of Housed Great Falls, of the Baatz Building solution set to be unveiled in 2023.
In search of solutions
Housed Great Falls is looking at both short- and long-term solutions to assist people without homes, with a goal of creating a low-barrier shelter as an alternative to the Great Falls Rescue Mission, a religious nonprofit that requires residents to stay sober.
Giovanna Minardi of Housed Great Falls said the Mission doesn’t meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, those with pets or people struggling with addiction, which make up a significant portion of the community.
While religion would push some away, for Tim Owens, 50, the religious aspect to the Mission was part of the appeal. Originally from Kalispell, Owens went to Billings to seek treatment for alcohol.
“I picked God. And I realized I didn’t know anything about God,” Owens said. “I came here from Billings to learn about my higher power.”
Owens has been homeless for seven years. He said being handicapped makes it hard, with back and hip injuries after a bad car wreck in Kalispell, and said that the Mission wasn’t prepared for someone with disabilities.
Owens thinks the population at First United Methodist has choices they have to make.
“They’re going to have to choose between their addictions and their way of living,” Owens said. “If they’re willing to sleep on the sidewalk, then I mean, a little bit of church and a little bit of sobriety can’t hurt ‘em at all.”
Commissioner McKenney recently spent some time at the encampment, walking down to the church outside his capacity as an elected official, in a New England Patriots T-shirt with a camp chair over his shoulder. He said his conversations with the residents surprised him.
“I expected most of them to be truly homeless and have no place to go,” McKenney said. “Very few of them were truly homeless and had no place to go. The rest, it was just rather convenient.”
He said people there told him they heard about the encampment and felt invited to come. Raining Bird, for example, could live with family, but she doesn’t feel safe and with the loss of her mother, she said it’s hard to go back.
Minardi of Housed Great Falls said the people who the organization has assigned tent space to are truly unhoused, and some people visit the encampment. She said some are former homeless who are there to lift up their friends, and that everyone deserves community.
“We thrive in community and we need community to be successful,” she said.
Life in the encampment
Although the camp has provided shelter, it was never a permanent solution, and it also created challenges for the neighborhood.
Quick said living in the encampment has overall been good even though people don’t always get along.
“You’re dealing with a whole bunch of different personalities, and they clash a lot,” he said.
Although the church has rules in place for people who stay in the parking lot, like prohibiting drug and alcohol use and staying quiet after 10 p.m., there isn’t security present to enforce the rules.
Miller of Housed Great Falls said one of the concerns they have with the ending of the encampment is the loss of solidarity against outside attacks.
“They can kind of band together, and they do that. They’re a community and so they stick together and try to protect each other,” Miller said. “If it’s just one or two individuals, under a bridge or in a park, they’re gonna be very vulnerable to anybody’s attack.”
An end to an encampment, an end to a lawsuit
The zoning regulation litigation will likely be dropped when the encampment ends, according to City Attorney Jeff Hindoien.
He said he’s been clear with the church’s legal counsel that if the church stops allowing people to camp in the parking lot, which violates city code, it would remove the basis for the lawsuit.
The church tried to get formal approval for the camp, putting in an application for a conditional use permit for an emergency shelter on its property, but the city Zoning Commission moved unanimously to recommend the city commission deny the application. The church then withdrew the application, but it intends to apply again.
Skerritt said the church was hoping the city would provide guidance surrounding what it would prefer, or if they had a facility for a shelter in mind. She said as of right now, they are waiting.
Mayor Kelly said that traditionally, the city of Great Falls has not been directly involved with the unhoused. Rather, he said it works to aid the 30 organizations involved in the continuum of care for the unhoused.
“For those who are truly unhoused and seeking support services, the city’s job is to make sure that the agencies that can provide those services are funded as best as possible with the available monies that were given by various government agencies,” Mayor Kelly said of the city’s role in addressing the issue.
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Earlier this year, the city passed an over $1 million plan to address homelessness using federal HOME-ARP funds that organizations involved in addressing this issue can apply for, and is just one example of funding pots for nonprofits involved to utilize.
Great Falls Continuum of Care Coordinator Owen said the majority of the unhoused are working families that hit hard times. The challenge is where the community that needs mental health support can go to seek treatment.
“That’s where we are short of resources,” he said “We don’t have enough services. We don’t have enough physical locations to house the homeless in our community.”
Where will they go?
Quick said he recently passed the exam to become a Certified Behavioral Health Peer Support Specialist with 96 percent. He said he’s waiting for a job opening in the field, saying he got into this work because he has always given advice to folks who need it.
His biggest piece of advice?
“Do an inventory about what’s going on in your life, what you want to change? What you would like to see different?” he said. “What is my lifestyle doing to those that I love?”
Raining Bird said the people she’s talked to are looking for work or already working and are looking for housing but don’t know how to go about it.
“It’s difficult every day. Everybody just wants something to eat,” she said. “A lot of them are traumatized about stuff that they’ve felt, and they felt a sense of belonging with all of us.”
Raining Bird said she’s about 36 credit hours short of her bachelor’s degree in counseling and would love to pursue work in psychology.
Tuesday, she was about packed up and was about ready to roll up her tent. She said she usually only sleeps an hour a night.
“Because I’m scared what’s gonna happen.”
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