Letters from our Readers

Unhoused Great Falls
By Melissa Smith

Many problems take a village to solve. One of the thorniest is the temporary or permanent

loss of one’s home.

Great Falls has experienced controversy over tents that have been set up in the First United

Methodist Church’s parking lot. They were intended as temporary, as the nonprofit

organization “Housed Great Falls” forms to address gaps in the Continuum of Care.

A persistent narrative holds that there are enough services to help everyone who finds

themselves in any kind of crisis in Great Falls, and that the unhoused simply do not want to

accept help. This feeds into the myth that “some people choose to be homeless,”, allowing

us to ignore the incredible, multi-faceted trauma of homelessness, which can impact a

person’s ability to even seek out, much less access, the care they need. 

I first became involved with the unhoused who were gathering at FUMC when I heard about

assaults taking place on unhoused people as they slept outside the church. Since my first

encounter with the unhoused gathering there, various organizations have tried to help to

little avail. 

Let’s face facts: inaction on low-barrier shelters and affordable housing has led to great

suffering. For years, we have ignored those who have fallen through our system’s cracks.

No comprehensive solutions appear to be forthcoming. Into that void, FUMC has allowed

the unhoused to gather in their parking lot. The problem? Tent encampments are illegal in

Great Falls, according to rules devised in 2005 by the Planning Advisory Board and Zoning

Commission.

No one believes tents in our downtown are ideal substitutes for proper housing. They cause

problems for the downtown business community, and unease for nearby residents.

Homelessness is a solvable problem, but only if we pursue specific, goal-directed policies

that work. Instead of scorning the conduct of homeless people, all levels of government,

working with citizens and the unhoused, should institute policies that work to end

homelessness.

It is especially important that the Great Falls City Government takes a leading role in

addressing this problem and help devise a solution. Opting instead to apply 17-year-old

zoning laws and lawsuits to force the Church’s hand, the City of Great Falls forced the Church

to dismantle their tent encampment on August 1. The bad news here is

that there is no other place for its occupants to go. Without addressing the needs of the

people in the tent encampment, the City has chosen to “kick the can down the road”— it

will resurface almost immediately.

Our choice is now pretty clear.  We can either continue to pay heavily by merely reacting to

people’s homelessness, endlessly chasing them through the expensive rotating doors of the

criminal justice system and hospital emergency rooms, or we can decide that we all need to

step up and invest in finally ending chronic homelessness.

The solutions are out there; all we need to do is find the political will.