On a cold January day in 2011, there were 1,050 people in the Kalispell area with some degree of homelessness, a new study released by Samaritan House revealed.
The Kalispell homeless shelter used the Montana Homeless Survey “point in time” data to compile its report, “The State of Homelessness in Kalispell,” and point out the myriad challenges caused by the growing social problem of homelessness.
“At Samaritan House it’s a nonstop process of trying to squeeze people in,” Director Chris Krager said. “We’re still at ground zero. We’ll still just starting to address homelessness” as a community.
According to the state survey numbers, more than 800 people came through Kalispell in 2011 and received services for homelessness. That number has been increasing about 8 to 10 percent annually, not only locally but also across the state, Krager said.
In the Flathead Valley, a six-year average shows 488 chronically homeless people, he said. With just 65 beds available daily at Samaritan House, “we’re 13 percent of what’s needed to handle homeless people,” Krager pointed out.
The largest demographic experiencing homelessness in Kalispell is people between the ages of 31 and 50, the study noted. It divided homeless individuals into four categories: those without family, those with family, those with family accompanying them on the day of the survey and those who had children with them.
A total of 132 military veterans with some degree of homelessness were counted in the 2011 snapshot, an annual survey coordinated by United Way and other service agencies.
There are many misconceptions surrounding homelessness, the study said, including the notion that a disproportionate number of homeless people have disabilities.
“While it is rational to believe people suffering from disabilities might have difficulty taking care of themselves, and thus end up homeless, the numbers in Kalispell dispute this,” the study said.
Of the homeless counted in Kalispell, 220 did not have a disability and only 26 did.
Another misconception is that homeless people are uneducated. Again, the numbers tell a different story, Krager said. A vast majority of the local homeless had at least a high school degree or GED equivalent.
Once all resources have been exhausted and a person is left with no option except homelessness, it’s worth looking at who seeks homeless services, the study said.
“In Kalispell, the numbers are staggeringly weighted toward people entering the shelter by themselves or with children,” he said. “Single parents compose a great number of those entering shelters, as do families with more than one member. Whether single or accompanied by others, homelessness is multilayered and its reaches seep into the community in many levels.”
Conflicts with family members or friends were the No. 1 reason leading to local homelessness, followed by problems with rent, loss of employment, medical issues and domestic violence.
A stark revelation of the study was that “the inability to work out relationship issues was just as relevant as financial disparity in leading to homelessness.”
The intent of the report was not to offer quick solutions or temporary quick fixes to the issue of homelessness in Kalispell, Krager said, but rather to take a broader look at the local problem and ask the question, “What are we trying to tackle?
“The real issue here is the absence of resources that put people into a hole from the beginning and they feel there is no way to catch up or break even; forget about getting ahead.”
The study gives some practical suggestions in addressing homelessness in Kalispell:
• Determine which essential services are most needed and the best way to deliver those services. Essential services include basics such as transportation, connecting with support groups, getting vocational help or child care.
• Design programs that put able adults or families into permanent housing as soon as possible.
• Provide education to homeless people on financial management, credit counseling and overcoming bad credit histories. Educate and negotiate with landlords to prevent evictions from rental housing.
• Create housing trust funds and rental assistance programs.
• Ensure that people transitioning from a temporary shelter have housing, job training, transportation, general health care and case management.
In the short term, Krager said, Samaritan House needs volunteers on a regular basis and financial help with the food budget. Samaritan House’s federal commodities grant has been reduced about $8,000 over the past couple of years and grocery costs keep increasing.
Community residents are welcome to drop off groceries, with a big emphasis on staples such as milk and bread, to the shelter, 124 W. Ninth Ave. in Kalispell. Last year Samaritan House served 34,860 meals to homeless residents.
Krager writes a blog about homelessness on the website, www.homelessintheflathead.com, to keep the issue at the forefront.
“For so many of us the issue of homelessness is disconnected from our daily life because it seems like a foreign issue or a reality that would never touch us here in the Valley,” Krager recently blogged. “Homelessness has become the elephant in the living room. But how do we combat a condition that ensnares people in cycles? We need solutions based in longevity and sustainability. Quick-fixes and aid without a long-term plan will only slap a bandage on a gaping wound.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.