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After Attempted Crackdown On Homelessness In Montana, Stories Of Violence Against The Unhoused

In Kalispell, Montana, city leaders have attempted to crack down on homelessness by a series of measures including an ordinance to punish motorists who give money or supplies to panhandlers, shutting off water and electricity at a city park where some were seeking refuge, and writing an open letter to the community early last year warning that providing shelter or resources to homeless people would “enable” them and entice more of them into the area. “It is our hope that our community will be unified in rejecting all things that empower the homeless lifestyle,” the county commissioners wrote in their letter. But now homeless residents said the city’s letter unleashed a punishing public backlash, with many reporting that groups of young people were roaming through homeless encampments and tormenting those living there. Some have reported being verbally accosted, punched, and targeted with paintball guns, the New York Times reports. In June, a 60-year-old homeless man was found dead after being severely beaten. A 19-year-old man was arrested, charged with deliberate homicide.

Tonya Horn, the executive director of the Flathead Warming Center, a shelter that offers overnight beds during cold months, said that the letter sent by the county commissioners at the start of 2023 had set the stage for the public animosity. “The words painted a picture that the homeless are not from here, that they are not our neighbors, so we should not take care of them,” Ms. Horn said. “It was dehumanizing.” Advocates for the unhoused said a range of problems have led to homelessness in a place where it previously was not prevalent. Housing costs shot up. Funding cuts from the state several years ago gutted case management programs for people with severe mental illness and addiction. Several hotels that had been available for long-term stays, a temporary solution for those between more permanent housing slots, closed. Travis Ahner, the top prosecutor in Flathead County, said it was clear that the area needed more mental health and addiction treatment services. He also said the cost of living has become so high that even lawyers his office tries to hire decide not to pursue the job once they realize they cannot afford housing. “There is not an easy way out,” he said.


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