Warming center hopes to open by Christmas

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  • The Rev. Donnel O’Flynn and Flathead Warming Center co-chairpersons Tonya Horn and Luke Heffernan are pictured outside of Christ Church Episcopal, where they plan to open a warming center this winter. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    The basement of Christ Church Episcopal on Third Avenue East in Kalispell is the future site of the Flathead Warming Center. The center is hoping to open their doors this winter before Christmas. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • The Rev. Donnel O’Flynn and Flathead Warming Center co-chairpersons Tonya Horn and Luke Heffernan are pictured outside of Christ Church Episcopal, where they plan to open a warming center this winter. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    The basement of Christ Church Episcopal on Third Avenue East in Kalispell is the future site of the Flathead Warming Center. The center is hoping to open their doors this winter before Christmas. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

After nearly a year, the Flathead Warming Center finally has a place to call home.

The nonprofit has formed a partnership with Christ Church Episcopal in Kalispell and plans to utilize the church basement as a shelter space for local homeless people in the winter months. The shelter will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and will welcome anyone in need, including those with alcohol or drugs in their system, along with sex offenders, as long as their behavior permits.

While this isn’t a long-term solution, Warming Center organizers say the space will allow them to keep more people out of the cold this winter. They are still seeking a permanent location and are in great need of funding for staff and insurance in order to open the doors before Christmas.

“It’s really going to be a humble beginning, but it’s going to be safe and it’s going to be warm and we’re very excited,” said center co-chair Tonya Horn, a social worker at the Western Montana Mental Health Center.

“Yes, we’ve got the space, but we need a Christmas miracle to come through for funding from the community,” she said. Organizers estimate seasonal operating costs between $36,000 and $40,000, down from previous estimates of more than $100,000.

An estimated 233 homeless reside in the valley, and there aren’t enough beds to accommodate them between the county’s two existing shelters. Samaritan House accommodates 90 to 105 people and Ray of Hope supports another 13 men and eight women. An exact occupancy number for the center is currently being determined by the fire marshal. To keep warm, some homeless have been taking refuge in the Kalispell Police Department lobby or at local hospital emergency rooms.

Christ Church Episcopal Rector, the Rev. Donnel O’Flynn, said his church discussed the possibility of opening a warming shelter years ago, but didn’t feel like they could manage such a feat on their own. When they received a call from the Flathead Warming Center in October, the church’s governing body voted, though not unanimously, to give the project the go-ahead. In exchange, the warming center will help pay for the church’s utilities and will set up and take down their facility daily so the church can still utilize the basement for their own activities outside of shelter hours.

O’Flynn said he was impressed by the caliber of the center’s board members, which include a former police officer and licensed counselor, among others, and views the arrangement as a stepping stone to bring a permanent warming center to the valley.

“This is not the answer. We could have at most 20 or so beds here; they’re looking for a permanent place. But if this works out we figure it will be a great entry to something bigger,” O’Flynn said.

Representatives from the center also spoke directly with the congregation about their plans.

“People were concerned. It wasn’t 100 percent … but I think overall they felt that this is the kind of thing that churches should be doing,” O’Flynn said.

They also went door to door to invite nearby residents to a neighborhood meeting. O’Flynn said chief among the community’s concerns was that the warming center could draw more homeless individuals to the area.

“We had 10 to 15 folks come and they’re concerned, obviously because this landed on them kind of out of the blue, but I think at the end of the hour, I sensed they were willing to give this a chance and show a little patience and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that,” he said.

The neighbors’ concerns will be the center’s concerns, Horn noted. She also believes that the homeless, and the surrounding community, will both be safer if the individuals on the street have a warm place to rest for the night.

“If they burn their bridges with the neighbors, they burn their bridges with us,” center co-chair Luke Heffernan said. “It’s really important to us that we’re a good neighbor. We can’t control everything, but we can control how we respond.”

To ensure safety, the center is planning to have paid staff on site and awake during center hours, assisted by trained volunteers. Horn said 20 people have expressed interest in donating their time to the center.

Volunteer training will be held next week, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 17, and Thursday, Dec. 19, at the church, with an additional six-hour session on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To sign up, contact Anne Miller at (406) 270-9055. Topics to be covered include how to create culture of dignity, safety, mental illness, addiction issues and more.

The center is also seeking supplies and financial contributions to help them get their doors open by Dec. 23, according to their website, www.flatheadwarmingcenter.org.

“The homeless people are here already in this neighborhood, but bringing them inside and being able to care for them and building a community within the warming center makes everyone safer,” Horn said. “The church has been very gracious to let us do this.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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