City board considering shelter request from downtown church at June 14 meeting

The First United Methodist Church submitted an application for a conditional use permit to use the property as an emergency shelter and on June 14, the city’s planning board/zoning commission will consider the application.

The church on the corner of 6th Street and 2nd Avenue North has been allowing people to gather and sleep on the property for the last year or so. Area residents and businesses have complained and law enforcement has responded to a significant number of calls at the church or nearby for incidents involving some of the people living on the church property.

For the last few months, the church has allowed a tent encampment on the property, which is in violation of city zoning codes.

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The church and those in a group that has formed to address the situation at the church and the larger community needs have said that allowing people to stay on the property is part of their Christian mission to help the homeless.

Staff is recommending denial of the CUP request.

“While staff acknowledges that the homeless situation in Great Falls is serious and should be addressed, the specific proposal that FUMC has submitted both (1) contemplates a form of land use (i.e., a campground land use) that is simply not permitted in the zoning district and (2) fails to include any specific proposals to address the negative impacts of even a permissible form of emergency shelter operation on the surrounding community. It has been demonstrated in Great Falls that emergency shelters can be successfully operated in the zoning district in which FUMC’s church facility is located and can be successfully managed in order to mitigate the impacts that seem inherent when serving populations that often times have addiction and/or mental health issues. However, those emergency shelters are operated in and utilize buildings as the “shelter” structure (which FUMC is not proposing here) and the active management utilized by those other shelter operations not only provides a higher level of security for the occupants themselves but also encourages a higher level of support from the community. The desired outcome of any such emergency shelter operation should be to provide appropriate support services to the most needy and vulnerable of our community while inspiring community engagement and inclusion,” staff wrote in their agenda report.

As the city investigated complaints about the FUMC property, staff advised the church officials that using the property as a shelter was a permitted land use in its zoning district but it required a CUP.

City staff told FUMC officials that even though the church had filed an application for a conditional use permit, they had to comply with current zoning codes in the meantime, which meant removal of the tent encampment.

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The tents remained and the city filed a lawsuit against the church in district court to enforce city zoning rules.

FUMC submitted a conditional use permit for a “homeless ministry” at the property that includes, according to their application:

  • Monday through Friday daily distribution of lunch bags
  • Tuesday evening community meal in their Fellowship Hall from 5-6 p.m.
  • Monday through Friday access to entering the church from 10 a.m. to noon for lunch, to sit or use the bathrooms
  • use of a Porta-Potty in the parking lot for people living on the streets to use when the church building is closed
  • allowing persons living on the street to gather on the property to socialize with the condition that they do not drink or use drugs. People who drink are told to leave the property. Persistent offenders can and have been permanently criminally trespassed.
  • allowing people living on the street to sleep on the property overnight including allowing people to set up tents on the property. They can sleep on the property as long as they don’t drink and are not causing a public disturbance. They are also required to clean up after themselves. We are presently directing people to sleep on the East side of the church in and near the parking lot

In their application, FUMC officials wrote that their future plans include:

  • “working with a non-profit to create and manage a  temporary encampment for those living on the streets on the unpaved section of the church’s parking lot. The encampment would contain up to 10 tents along with space for people to set up their own tents. The encampment would be fenced off and monitored for safety.
  • creation of a walk-in center inside the church for persons to gather and socialize during the day and receive help that would be similar to St. Vincent DePaul’s Angel Room. Their walk-in center would be open Thursday and Friday with a daily meal. The kitchen at the church will have to be remodeled and brought up to standard health department codes.
  • the church is working with the ad-hoc group that has been meeting to address homelessness since January. They are in the process of incorporation to become a non-profit.
  • working with law enforcement to develop solutions to address the problems of those persons who habitually break FUMC rules and the city ordinance about public drinking and creating a public disturbance on FUMC property.

The hand drawing submitted to the city planning department with FUMC’s permit application includes the proposed location and layout for the tent encampment and includes about 20 tent sites along the east side of the church parking lot, a porta-potty and a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the camping site.

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The zoning commission will vote to make a recommendation to the City Commission about the conditional use permit. The City Commission will also hold a public hearing on the CUP application to make a final determination.