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Flathead County commissioners say free services are empowering 'the homeless lifestyle'

Flathead County commissioners have penned an open letter asking city councils in the area to reject the empowerment of "the homeless lifestyle," and to deny permits to build or expand homeless shelters. Advocates for homeless people are pushing back.

Flathead County commissioners say well-networked homeless people are sharing information about services in the region and “providing homeless infrastructure has the predictable consequence of attracting more homeless individuals to our community.”

Executive Director of the Flathead Warming Center Tanya Horn says homeless populations are growing across the state due to lack of affordable housing.

“If the Flathead Warming Center were not open, we would have 50 more homeless individuals on the street. I do not think that is a solution,” Horn says.

A study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that a $100 increase in the average rent led to a 9% increase in homelessness in 2019.

In an emailed statement to MTPR, commissioner Randy Brodehl said the commissioner's letter was not intended to target locals in need of help. He blames free services like shelters for attracting “a glut of transients.” He says transient homeless populations are breaking into county buildings and pose a threat to the community.

According to the Flathead Warming Center, 64% of people they sheltered in 2020/2021 lived in the Flathead for more than a year and more than 40% lived in the area for more than a decade.

Horn says seniors who can no longer afford rent represent the largest increase to the local homeless population.

“Folks that are coming inside with walkers and with oxygen. These are not folks that are part of some type of network to bring them here. These are our neighbors.”

Horn says she invites the commissioners to visit the center to learn more about its services and the people it serves.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.