Zoning board denies permit request for tent encampment at downtown church

The city zoning commission voted unanimously to recommend that the City Commission deny a request from the First United Methodist Church at the corner of 2nd Street North and 6th Street to operate a tent encampment.

The church has already allowed the tent encampment and city staff notified church officials that without a conditional use permit to allow the encampment, it’s a violation of the city zoning code. The city gave the church 10 days to comply and it did not remove the encampment, so the city filed a lawsuit in district court to enforce its zoning code.

The permit request next goes to the City Commission for final consideration.

That public hearing is tentatively scheduled for July 19.

The church has been allowing people that it deems “unhoused” to congregate and sleep on the property for the last year or so, prompting a number of complaints from local businesses and area residents.

The Great Falls Police Department has reported a significant increase in call volume to the area and in the last 60 days, officers have responded to 263 calls for service within 500 feet of the church property, according to Capt. John Schaffer.

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Schaffer told The Electric that there is no other single properties in town similarly high call volume with the possible exception of Walmart for theft calls.

Over the weekend, Great Falls Fire Rescue was called to the encampment because people had started a fire and were burning furniture, according to city officials.

During the June 14 zoning commission meeting, Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that the city recognizes the needs of the homeless and that housing is scarce, but that as presented, they recommended denial of the permit application.

“The CUP proposal, as presented, does not contain any management plan or structure to adequately address and mitigate/eliminate any of those problems. Rather, it seems to assume an even greater reliance on local law enforcement, emergency services, and others apart from the applicant to manage and resolve problems on the property,” according to the staff report.

Raymond said that staff believes a homeless shelter in the C-4 zoning district where the church is located is possible, but “the proposal as it exists today is not something that can be supported.”

Dave Bertelsen, zoning commission chair, said that “obviously the cart was way before the horse on this conditional use application. The bottom line is it does not meet the zoning requirements.”

He said he commends those who are working for solutions and that their compassion is admirable. He said there’s also a downtown coore that’s trying to revitalize.

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Jeff Wakeley, the outgoing pastor at First United Methodist, said that “we’re responding to a need. This is not a homelessness issue. This is a housing issue.”

He said that “unfortunately, the encampment started before us.”

Wakeley said that he didn’t really want the tents initially, but they happened anyway, so he was asking the city to approve the conditional use permit.

He said that they allowed it because “that’s where those who are unhoused are gathering.”

Wakeley said he wanted the GFPD to do security for the encampment.

GFPD said they have been patrolling the area and anytime they see a crime being committed, or are called, they respond.

Wakeley said during the June 14 zoning commission meeting that regardless of whether the city approves the conditional use permit, “we are going to continue to allow them to sleep on the property.”

If the city commission doesn’t approve the permit, the city could pursue other enforcement action against the church for code violations.

A number of downtown residents and business owners spoke in opposition of the permit.

Darrell Becker, owner of the Perkins and Midtown Motel, said his business has suffered since the church allowed people to stay on the property.

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There have been reports of vandalism at and around the restaurant, people have been trying to sleep in hallways and use their restrooms, Becker said.

“I don’t see where what he’s doing is helping. I don’t know what he’s truly trying to accomplish,” Becker said.

Dustin Pepos said the church had created an unsafe environment for those in the encampment and those who live or conduct business in the area.

He said he’s concerned that the church doesn’t have the resources or capacity to manage the situation.

Frank Headley manages the IGA store down the block and said he’s had an increase in theft and trespassing and people showing little respect for the neighbors or neighborhood.

He said that he’s increased security measures at the store, employees and customers don’t feel safe and that Wakeley had asked him to contact him directly rather than calling GFPD with any problems.

Wes Bentley manages the Zip Trip across the alley from the tent encampment and said his employees can’t park near the store anymore due to vandalism and safety concerns. He said that some of his employees used to walk to and from work but now don’t feel safe so he has to coordinate rides for them.

“This isn’t a houseless problem,” Bentley said.

He said he’s managed the store since 2017 and many of the people staying on the FUMC property have been a problem downtown for all of those years.

“We’re trying to make downtown a better place for businesses…and this is not the right direction,” Bentley said.

Rick Mazaira, the pastor at Vineyard Church, said that he was not speaking for his church, but as someone who ministers to the poor.

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He said his church has been giving away more food and that there’s an obvious need in the community.

“It’s not just giving them a home, it’s how do you give them a path back to their life. A solution is not a tent in a parking lot. A solution is a stepped, tiered path,” to move out of their situation into a better life, Mazaira said.

“If there is no plan to do something beyond that first night then what are we doing? There has to be thought into where we take people and what we do with them. That’s where the dignity lies,” he said.

Heather Winney said she was formerly homeless and has struggled with addiction.

She said the encampment is more of an addiction issue than a homelessness issue.

Winney said that if the church isn’t prepared to provide services, resources and treatment counselors, “all you’re doing is enabling these people to die a little bit sooner.”

A group of community members have formed an ad hoc task force that has been organized into a nonprofit, Housed Great Falls.

They’ve been meeting and trying to find solutions to homelessness in Great Falls.

A number of local agencies meet regularly and have worked for years to address homelessness in the community. That umbrella organization is known as the Continuum of Care and includes a number of agencies that provide housing, treatment and other services.

Megan Miller is part of the Housed Great Falls group and asked the board to support the permit.

She said that they’re looking at adding a fence around the church property to mitigate concerns.

She said that they believe allowing people to stay on the property would lower costs to the city by lowering arrests.

GFPD reported that there have been 15 arrests made on the property to date, up from six total in 2021.

Miller said they believe the tent encampment is a small step.

“We know they need much more than we have to offer in the tent community,” Miller said.

Michael Yegerlehner, a member of the Unhoused Great Falls group, said that “this problem will not go away. You can shoo them away and they’ll go somewhere else.”

He said people have driven by and shouted at those in the encampment to get a job, which isn’t helpful. He’s a mental health counselor and said he’s booked out for months.

“I am not doing this because it makes me feel better, I am here because there’s a problem that is not getting met,” Yegerlehner. “They’re just a group of people that are falling through the cracks. I don’t think dispersing the problem is going to make it better.”

He said he wished people who were concerned would come talk to him or the Housed Great Falls group.

Carrie Parker, director of Helping Hands food pantry at First English Lutheran Church, down the street from the encampment, said that she’d heard a lot of complaints during the meeting, but not solutions.

“Clearly, we have a problem,” she said.

She said at her food pantry, they’ve seen an increase in people using their services, mostly people who weren’t homeless but struggling to choose between rent and groceries.

“I think Great Falls can do this, if we come together as a community,” Parker said.

Dave Olsen, a retired Methodist minister and member of FUMC, said that solutions to homelessness are difficult to come by.

“The fear factor in all of those in opposition was just off the ceiling,” he said.

The encampment is meant to be temporary, he said, and that the need was overwhelming their resources.