Downtown church, businesses, city at odds over handling of homeless population

People sleeping and congregating on the property around the First United Methodist Church at 610 2nd Ave. N. has frustrated the downtown community and city officials for months.

The situation has evolved and in recent months risen to the level of public discussion at several City Commission meetings.

Rev. Jeff Wakeley, pastor at the church, said that his church has always had lunch programs for the homeless but over the last year, he said he’s expanded that to allow them to sleep and gather on the property as long as they don’t drink alcohol.

Over the last year, the number of people on the property has significantly increased, as have concerns from residents and businesses in the area.

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In 2020, there were 34 calls for service and five that generated full reports, according to Great Falls Police Department records. There were no assaults, aggravated assaults, disorderlies or disturbances at the church location. There was one trespass, according to GFPD records.

In 2021, the number of calls increased to 100 or more and 26 of them generated cases and reports, according to GFPD.

There was one aggravated assault, five assaults, seven disorderlies, two tresspasses and one disturbance in 2021 at that church location, according to GFPD records.

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A number of the 2021 calls were related to general disturbances or people with alcohol, according to the GFPD case logs.

There was also a rape, vandalism and other assaults among the people using the property, according to police records.

Wakeley said in an interview with The Electric that they’ve realized allowing the open, unregulated use of the property came with troubles and that they are working to handle the situation differently as the weather warms and people return in larger numbers this year.

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He said they are going to block the window well in the back of the building where a number of people had placed boxes, blankets and more to sleep. Wakeley said they’ve cleaned out that area and are also going require those using the property to sign agreements that will detail where they can sleep and the rules for behavior and cleaning up the area.

Capt. John Schaffer of the GFPD said he and several other officers are currently developing a new strategy to address the issues associated with people sleeping at the church property this year. He said those details will be firmed up over the next few months but that they won’t treat the issue the same way as in the past.

Other city officials have also been looking at the issue in terms of property maintenance code enforcement though only one formal complaint had been filed with the city about the church as of Jan. 11.

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During the Jan. 18 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Rick Tryon said that he wanted the city to begin enforcing its nuisance ordinance against the church.

“Our community has been very patient. There’s a real concern that we’ve allowed this to go on,” Tryon said.

City Manager Greg Doyon said the city has the ability to enforce but hadn’t yet as they knew some commissioners were involved in community groups that are working on long-term term solutions to homelessness.

Doyon told The Electric in mid-January that he had recently summarized the situation in an email update to commissioners.

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“I outlined the potential code violations and asked them to direct me accordingly. I specifically sought their input because of the ongoing coordinated community effort to address resident, business, and downtown patron concerns about homelessness. The topic was also broached at the last City Commission meeting [Jan.4]. Taking enforcement action against FUMC was not directed or addressed. My sense is that the commission hopes that the Continuum of Care group (and others) will find a community based approach to better manage the current issue now and for the long term. I know conversations are ongoing,” Doyon wrote in an email to The Electric.

In response to Tryon’s comments at the Jan. 18 commission meeting, Wakeley sent a message to the mayor through the city’s online comment system.

In that message, Wakeley wrote, in part, “Really? Do you and the commission really want to go there with all the negative attention that it would bring to the city. I don’t want this to be confrontational. I understand why people are upset but the church is doing what the church is supposed to do in such circumstances. Could things have been done better? Of course, but we, including you and the city, were caught on our heels. We want to make the situation better. We have already taken steps to clean up the parking lot and grounds. The irony of this is that this encampment that Tryon calls it, was facilitated by well-meaning citizens who wanted to show Christian charity and help people by giving them blankets and cardboard and tarps to cover themselves. The only part of the church that needs attention now is the front entrance. We are also changing where people will sleep overnight and how they are responsible for cleaning and picking up after themselves. We will also be making an effort to cull those persons who are living on the streets but only come to the church to party and drink.”

“We need the city to help us identify useable properties, navigate us through building codes and find sources of funding from the state and federal governments. I need to know what you expect of us in the next two weeks. What does that mean we have to do and what does it mean for the future? Do I tell the homeless that because of the city ordinance I cannot help them and they cannot stay on the church property because the City does not want them to be in the city,” Wakeley wrote to the mayor.

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In October, Doyon met attended a meeting at First Baptist Church, which is cattycorner from the Methodist church, at their request to discuss their concerns.

Doyon met with Wakeley after that meeting to discuss the issue as well in October.

During the discussion at the Jan. 18 meeting, Doyon said that the city would follow the regular nuisance code enforcement process for the church as it would for any other property, which would potentially result in violations being issued against the church as the property owner.

Other commissioners suggested taking more time to let the groups working on the issue find long-term solutions and Wakeley hosted a meeting at the church on Jan. 18, at the same time as the commission meeting.

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The commissioners agreed that long-term solutions were preferable to pursuing nuisance violations, but that businesses and residents in the area were being adversely affected and that also needed to be considered.

On Dec. 13, a regular transient in the area was arrested for vandalizing a vehicle outside the Perkins restaurant and the person was also a person of interest related to the window that was broken at Perkins on Dec. 11.

That person had been trespassed from the Zip Trip on Dec. 3, was intoxicated and hit by a vehicle during that time as well, according to police records.

There was a stabbing in the area of the Zip Trip/IGA grocery store on Dec. 20 that involved two of the transients who have been frequenting the church area, according to GFPD. They have a history and one is currently in jail, according to GFPD.

In August of 2020, there was a rape in which a transient woman was violently attacked by multiple other transients on the church property, according to GFPD reports. The incident wasn’t reported until weeks later when police officers happened to be talking to the woman near the IGA.

Police said Wakeley had been made aware of the assault and he told police that he was adding more lighting in the grassy alcove area where the assault occurred.

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Of those who committed that assault, GFPD records indicate one died and one was in jail.

During the Jan. 4 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Rick Tryon said that he wanted the city to consider using its $1.026 million allocation of federal COVID funds specific for housing to build a homeless shelter or purchase a building to be used as a homeless shelter.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a federal COVID relief package, appropriated funding to provide housing services, and shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable populations, to be allocated by formula to jurisdictions that qualified for HOME Investment Partnerships Program allocations in fiscal year 2021. The city has been awarded $1,026,477 of HOME-ARP funds.

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No decision has yet been made on how to use those funds in Great Falls, but City Manager Greg Doyon said they cannot be used for congregant housing; so using those funds for a new homeless shelter is not permitted under the federal rules.

During that meeting, Tryon suggested that the old Washington School, which is now privately owned, could be repurposed as a housing shelter, or the city could design and build a shelter, or they could use shipping containers as housing.

He said it would not come with continued city funding for operations and would depend on partnerships with the faith community groups to handle the ongoing costs and associated staffing.

“I think the city does have an obligation to try to do something about it,” Tryon said.

In an email to The Electric, Doyon said there has always been a homeless/transient population in Great Falls and that the population has become more visible this season due to the outreach ministry at First United Methodist Church to serve that population downtown.

“It may come as a surprise to some, but the city has always had small homeless camps around the community; usually adjacent to parks, along the river, or under bridge abutments. The camps are moved on a fairly frequent basis, usually due to a specific incident (a crime, call to the police, inappropriate behavior, or another similar event) that triggers a response from government officials. The problem does not get solved, it gets moved,” Doyon wrote.

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Several years ago, the Montana Department of Transportation asked for assistance to remove some shelter materials, such as old furniture, trash and needles, that had been collected under some overpasses, Doyon said. Another year, multiple agencies tried to address one homeless person living under a bridge abutment, known to most as Iceman, Doyon said. City employees have had to clean up homeless encampments all over town such as between elevated railroad track sections, heavily vegetated areas or along the river on and off city-owned property, he said.

Doyon said that the Continuum of Care group, which includes city representatives, has been working to address the complex needs of the homeless/transient population for years.

The purpose of the group is to bring together the expertise of many agencies involved with managing the city’s homeless/transient challenges.

“As city manager, I personally do not believe that City of Great Falls (as in the organization) is in a position to purchase, operate, or continually fund a homeless shelter. The city, however, through its CDBG and ARPA programming may be in a position to financially assist an outside agency that has that mission, training, expertise, and long-term revenue model to operate such a facility,” Doyon told The Electric.

Continuum of Care for Homelessness – Participating Organizations

  • City of Great Falls
  • Great Falls Housing Authority
  • Great Falls Public Library
  • United Way of Cascade County
  • Great Falls Public Schools
  • Great Falls Rescue Mission
  • Opportunities, Inc.
  • NeighborWorks Great Falls
  • Benefis
  • Alluvion Health
  • Center for Mental Health
  • North Central Independent Living
  • YWCA
  • St Vincent de Paul
  • Alliance for Youth
  • Young Parents Education Center
  • Red Cross
  • VA- HUDVash
  • Volunteers of America (VOA)
  • Voices of Hope/Montana 2-1-1
  • Family Promise
  • Helping Hands/First English Lutheran

The following list includes the current homeless providers in Great Falls:

  • Great Falls Rescue Mission
  • Opportunities, Inc.
  • Alluvion Health
  • Center for Mental Health
  • Indian Family Health Clinic
  • North Central Independent Living
  • YWCA
  • St Vincent de Paul
  • Alliance for Youth
  • Family Promise
  • Helping Hands/First English Lutheran
  • First United Methodist
  • VA- HUDVash
  • Volunteers of America (VOA)

Wakeley, the pastor at First United Methodist Church, told The Electric that the solution is to build a low-barrier shelter.

He said that he believes the local problem is the the community depends on a shelter with limited capacity and because they’re private they don’t have to take people they don’t want to.

During a Jan. 26 meeting of the Downtown Development Partnership, Melissa Smith, who has been participating in the community meetings at the church, said that they’re concerned over cold weather situations and that it’s an emergency to create a shelter for those times. She said the group probably won’t meet again until March.

The Great Falls Rescue Mission does offer emergency cold weather shelter to anyone and everyone, so long as they don’t pose a threat to others in the shelter.

The mission offers cold weather service from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the men’s and women’s shelter when the temperature “feels like” 32 degrees of below at any point during the night.

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The mission told Doyon, the city manager, in an email that “we do our best to accommodate anyone and everyone even if they are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol with stipulation that they do not pose a threat and/or danger to the other residents in our shelter. Those receiving cold weather services sleep on a camp mat in the common area or day room overnight. Individuals receiving cold weather services may qualify for a bed when they do not test positive for drugs and are sober.”

The mission told Doyon that they have the space and capacity for this service in the men’s shelter.

Cold weather services for women are temporarily provided on a limited basis while they are renovating the bathroom at the women’s shelter.

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“We welcome anyone who needs help with temporary shelter. We are a Christian based organization; however, we do not require that anyone hold the same belief nor express a Christian belief to receive any of our services. Great Falls Rescue Mission provides these services on a non-discriminatory basis,” according to the mission. “Our 16-month long recovery program is Christian-based and we are transparent and up front with individuals about that prior to them making a commitment to join. Chapel attendance is required for short-term residents, and we have two options available: one in the morning and one in the evening. Once again, no one is required to express or believe in the Christian faith in order to receive any of our services.”

Wakeley said another barrier at shelters for the homeless is that they don’t allow pets.

He said that he’s hoping to work with local animal shelters to help with that, or put some kennels in a shelter.

The group that met at the church on Jan. 18 is working to determine what the requirements would be to create a new shelter and then determine locations and funding.

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Wakeley said his goal is to solve the most obvious problem, which he believes is providing a bed.

“We just don’t have enough beds for people to sleep in. Once you provide the bed, you have a base for which you can provide services. It’s hard to provide supportive services if they’re scattered all over the place, easier if they’re in a shelter,” Wakeley said.

He said that they’re working now to allow the homeless, or anyone, to come into their church during business hours and use their facilities.

Currently, the church provides Tuesday night dinners to the homeless, in addition to their lunch program.

Wakeley said that he intends to start opening the church facility so people can come in and get their lunches, give out hats, coats and socks.

The next step, Wakely said, is to create a drop-in center that would be Thursdays during office hours when the homeless could gather upstairs at the church.

“Our hope is to create somewhat of a community center,” Wakeley said.

He said that perhaps they would be able to offer services in the future or partner with other downtown agencies to connect the homeless with those services.

Wakeley said their hope is to do things like that, or have a counseling center, or look into becoming an emergency shelter themselves.

“But that’s down the line,” Wakeley said. “We’re not going whole hog, want to make sure we’re safe.”

He said that they got hammered over the summer and there were a number of reasons for that.

“God also has a hand in this,” he said. “We can’t put a fence around the church and we shouldn’t. This is our mission.”