Unintended consequences of new ordinance

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The Kalispell City Council last week narrowly approved an ordinance making it a civil infraction to sleep overnight in vehicles parked on city streets.

According to the city, the new order will help stem the recent uptick in the number people parking overnight in their RVs or camper vans on city streets, especially in the summer months. It should be noted that this practice is currently against the city’s zoning code, so the new civil infraction simply gives the city more teeth with enforcement.

The logic behind this new ordinance is reasonable. With more and more tourists filtering through the Flathead each summer, it’s easy to envision once-quiet neighborhoods becoming makeshift RV parks. The city should have a tool to deal with this type of infraction, which was the intent of the council’s vote.

Yet, we also sympathize with the many people who expressed real heart burn about the unintended consequences this law could have on people experiencing homelessness in the valley.

“We think this is an improper solution that will unfairly damage the homeless community in Kalispell and that it is not fitting with the values of our community,” said Abbie Shelter Director Hillary Shaw.

Our valley certainly isn’t immune to homelessness. In fact, some might find the statistics quite shocking. A United Way survey from a single night in January 2018 showed more than 230 people in the valley were homeless. Many of those surveyed were veterans, and a large portion of that homeless population — over 30 percent — was experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Given that the valley’s shelters are already at capacity, it’s reasonable to expect that many of these folks would choose to live in a vehicle as a last resort. Punishing people who are already facing a tough financial situation with a fine they can’t afford seems to fly in the face of both logic and Montana values.

Others expressed that the ordinance could place an unnecessary burden on our already-taxed police force and judicial system.

The ordinance “is going to cause more work for the city attorney and the judges in the long run,” warned Caity Pitcher, an employee at youth homeless shelter Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana.

We don’t blame city officials for working to address an issue before it gets worse — and the city should have a mechanism to promptly enforce a law that’s already on the books.

But it’s also important that this ordinance remains focused on the intended target, and that each encounter is handled with compassion and humanity. Homelessness is a real issue facing our community, and simply sweeping it outside of city limits isn’t the answer.

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