City files legal action against downtown church over tent encampment

As temperatures rise, local officials and community groups are continuing the discussion of homelessness and how to address issues at the First United Methodist Church at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 6th Street in downtown Great Falls.

Over the last year, the pastor at FUMC has allowed people to sleep and congregate on the church property, causing concern and tension with area residents, downtown businesses, law enforcement and city officials.

Pastor Jeff Wakeley, who is now leaving the church, has said that the people using the church property are homeless and it’s the church’s mission to care for the homeless.

Others have argued that many of the people there are not homeless and are causing safety problems in the area.

Outreach efforts expanding for homelessness, addressing issues at downtown church

The Electric spoke with some of those using the property this spring who said they had places to stay other than the church but chose to congregate on the property for the social aspect.

Law enforcement has been tracking the number of calls and incidents at the property over the last year. There have been more than 100 calls, including disturbances, assaults and alcohol related issues.

A group has organized to discuss potential solutions for homelessness in Great Falls and have proposed developing a tent encampment on the FUMC property this summer.

Under the current zoning rules, that is not allowed and city officials advised the group to file a conditional use permit to address using the property as something other than solely a church facility.

According to city officials, the permit application was incomplete when it was submitted at the end of April and remained incomplete for several weeks.

While staff was working with the church to complete their application, city staff also issued a notice of noncompliance to the church for the tent and camper encampment, which are violations of the city zoning code.

The notice gave the church 10 days to comply with the existing code and remove the tents and campers, which has not happened, so the city has now filed suit in District Court to enforce its zoning code.

The permit application has been completed and a public hearing has been scheduled before the city zoning board for June 14. The church has requested a conditional use permit to operate an emergency shelter on the property.

The city has also begun reviewing and responding to several formal citizen complaints regarding the public nuisance condition on the church property under the city code.

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

That process can culminate in a public hearing before the City Commission.

“The city had hoped that First United Methodist Church would work with the Great Falls Local Continuum of Care and other existing service providers to assist the homeless. Instead, First United has sought to expand its efforts stating that the city has not done enough to support a ‘low barrier’ shelter,” according to a city release.

Michael Yegerlehner, one of those active in the church group, said the encampment is a short-term plan while they work toward their goal of a “permanent low-barrier shelter.”

“At the moment FUMC has agreed to host the location of the temporary encampment. A city ran encampment would be agreeable, but this does not seem likely at this time. The problem facing citizens who are unhoused are far in excess of what is seen at FUMC; the church just happens to be the most visible tip of the iceberg so we are starting there. People are already gathering there and our move is to make this more organized and structured for everyone’s safety and well being,” Yegerlehner said in an email to The Electric.

He said it’s too soon to know the location of their future shelter goal, but that there are no plans to make the church itself a permanent shelter.

Yegerlehner said that their group is attempting to meet a community need, “but by no means does that imply a lack of respect or desire for cooperation with the existing resources. As a counselor, I have referred patients to many of these resources and will continue to do so without misgivings, but I see a growing need at the bottom that is not getting adequately met; there are not enough beds.”

At their April 20 meeting, they decided to form a nonprofit and have begun that process, according to Yegerlehner.

In multiple meetings and conversations, Wakeley and others have said that the Great Falls Rescue Mission couldn’t or wouldn’t serve some of those who have been using the FUMC property.

During an April City Commission work session, Jim McCormick, the mission’s director, said that “things I’ve heard said in your meetings have been incorrect. I’ve been biting my tongue.”

He said that in 2020, the shelter served more than 1,500 people and provided temporary shelter to 750.

McCormick said that as the weather improves, “the situation will escalate.”

The mission partners with other agencies in the community and they’re all working to provide services to the homeless and connect them with the appropriate services, McCormick said, “but there are gaps in services.”

McCormick invited commissioners to visit and tour the mission, “so that you know the facts, you can see how we deal with things over there and we can make educated decisions after that.”

Currently, the men’s shelter has some open beds and the women’s shelter depends on the day, according to Carrie Matter, development director at the mission.

“We always encourage people who need temporary shelter to check in with us on a daily basis,” she said.

During that meeting, Mayor Bob Kelly said that it was “critical” to learn about and draw attention to the mission’s work.

Kelly said he thought the people at FUMC were well intentioned, but “could learn a lesson from your folks,” he told McCormick.

Matter of the mission said in mid-May that they were still working with the city to schedule visits from the commissioners.

During an April 5 commission meeting, Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton said that from Jan. 1 to that date, they had responded 38 times to disturbances, liquor law violations, welfare checks, disorderlies, assaults and an arrest on a warrant.

One of the incidents involved an assault on police officers, according to GFPD and court documents.

“We can’t enforce our way out of issues,” Newton told commissioners.

The GFPD is working with local providers on developing a different approach to addressing the issues and FUMC and better responding to those with addiction and behavioral issues.

Capt. John Schaffer has been presenting his plan at neighborhood council meetings over the last few weeks. That plan is modeled after the approach the Billings Police Department has been taking.

In the model, after an arrest and booking, but prior to a court arraignment, a health counselor meets with the offender to assess their needs or addictions. The offender is presented with different options in an attempt to avoid the normal incarceration route, according to Schaffer’s presentation.

He’s hoping to roll out the new approach this summer to better address the issues specifically at FUMC but also throughout the city.