Rep. Etchart references Flathead Commission letter in opposing homeless grant funding bill 

By: - February 20, 2023 7:16 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena shortly after sunrise on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, referenced a letter released by the Flathead County Commission earlier this year that referenced homelessness as a “lifestyle choice for some” in explaining her opposition to providing grant funding towards supporting the unhoused. 

During executive action on a bill that would provide $2 million in matching funds to nonprofits working towards sheltering and providing services for the unhoused, Etchart said she’s received a lot of opposition from people in Billings because of the “huge” unhoused population living in a downtown park in Kalispell. 

“There’s never going to be, it appears, enough shelter to house the homeless folks,” she said during the House Human Services Committee meeting on Thursday. “I’ve worked in the homeless shelters before. I very much understand this.” 

Etchart then read the majority of an open letter released earlier this year by Flathead County Commissioners that said the unhoused had a “progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject help and live unmoored.” The letter received support and backlash in the community and many reactions online. 

“This is a horrible situation, and (I) want to be able to help it, but due to the overwhelming amount of information I’ve received from the folks in Billings that I represent, I’m going to have to regrettably be a ‘no’ on this,” she said. “What they said to me was ‘build it they will come,'” she said, and they can’t help people who are homeless anymore.

But House Bill 380, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Frazer, R- Deer Lodge, passed out of committee last week 14-7 with bi-partisan support. The $2 million in general funds would sunset in 2025. 

During the hearing on the bill, Jeff Buscher with United Way of Lewis and Clark County, said on any given night, people are sleeping on the street in stairwells, alleys and dumpsters in Helena. 

He said more than 125 people were staying in hotels in Helena, utilizing emergency rental assistance funds made available through ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act. 

“When these dollars run out, like cities across the rest of the state, we’re going to have a challenge before us,” he said. 

Kalispell’s City Council recently held a four-hour hearing about the unhoused living in Depot Park and their proposed solution, an ordinance would limit the time people were allowed to spend in the park. 

According to reporting from the Daily Inter Lake, the council recently approved on first reading three ordinances regarding public property, including one banning erected structures (aimed at tents), another limiting “excessive” personal property and the third limiting time someone could spend under a structure like the gazebo to 150 minutes per day without a permit.  

The council will meet again on Tuesday for final approval of the ordinances. 

One of the commenters during the council’s public hearing also spoke during the House Human Services Committee meeting at the legislature. 

Tonya Horn, co-founder and executive director of the Flathead Warming Center, told the committee there is an overwhelming need for increased shelter bed capacity for all demographics. She said the shelter has had to turn people away 271 times this winter, but beds are not all shelters need right now. 

“Shelters have been filling in for many gaps in mental health and addiction services in Montana. Having funding to fill some of those gaps would be very important,” she said. “It is best practice to provide wrap-around care to include behavioral health care in a setting where individuals are getting their basic needs met.” 

Laurie Little Dog said she became unhoused fleeing what she described as a “very violent situation” with her child. She said she was given services, like childcare, and the shelter wanted to be able to provide more but couldn’t due to capacity strains. 

“If we give more resources, we can provide long-term stability,” she said.

She said she’s currently in Section 8 Housing provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and she’s returning to college and working on law school. 

“There’s a lot of positive things that can come out of funding more support for houseless people,” she said. 

The bill would provide funds for non-profit organizations to provide: 

  • in-house treatment and case management services to address mental health and substance use disorders; 
  • family care and other services that will allow families to remain together; and 
  • programs serving elderly populations who are currently unhoused or at risk of becoming homeless

The bill would require matching funds, meaning the organization would need to raise a certain amount of money on its own to “match” the state’s contribution. However, Sam Forstag with the  Montana Coalition to Solve Homelessness, said during the hearing there isn’t currently a maximum amount organizations can request if they can provide a match. 

Sponsor Rep. Frazer made an amendment to the bill for a sunset provision for the funds in 2025.

During the hearing Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, asked about the “tent city” that was “causing havoc” in Great Falls. The unhoused population staying in the parking lot of First United Methodist Church was evicted last summer and “No Trespassing” signs were posted in the fall. 

Sheldon-Galloway asked if these funds would help solve the crisis, saying most of the people have been kicked out of shelters because they won’t follow rules. Unhoused people have said in some cases they don’t want to go to shelters with religious affiliations and many shelters require sobriety to be checked in. 

“What do we do with that population?” she asked.

Sheldon-Galloway and her husband Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, own the Dairy Queen adjacent to the First United Methodist Church. 

Forstag said by having mental health services in-house, shelters will be able to get people stable before there’s a safety issue. 

The bill will now head for a vote on the House floor.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.