Downtown church commits to removing tent encampment by Aug. 1

First United Methodist Church officials have told the city that they will prohibit tents and camping on their downtown property effective Aug. 1.

The encampment at the church property at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 6th Street has caused frustration on all sides and hours of discussion during public meetings.

City, church working to address zoning issues with tent encampment

The church began allowing people to sleep and congregate on the property last year and the situation escalated this year as crime increased and the tent encampment popped up, which is in violation of city zoning codes.

Earlier this year, the church submitted a permit application to operate an emergency shelter on the property.

But without that approval, the church was still subject to zoning rules and the city issued a notice of violation in May, giving the church 10 days to address the encampment. The issue was not addressed and the city filed a lawsuit against the church in District Court to enforce the zoning code.

Downtown church withdraws permit application for tent encampment

In June, the city zoning commission voted to recommend denial of the permit for the shelter and the church subsequently withdrew its application, indicating it would submit a new one. No new application has been submitted yet, but if it is, the process will start over.

Jeff Hindoien, city attorney, told commissioner during their July 19 meeting that he’s been working with the church’s attorney to address the issue. He said that if the church does submit a new permit application it will need to be for a shelter operation and not a campground.

Zoning board denies permit request for tent encampment at downtown church

“There’s been more than a bit of perception on the part of the community that the city’s not doing anything,” Hindoien said.

The lawsuit is a civil suit and “those do not move with lightning speed,” he said.

Hindoien said if they can remove the encampment that would remove the need for the lawsuit.

City files legal action against downtown church over tent encampment

He said that he’d been in conversation with the church’s attorney and had been waiting to get a firmer timeline on their plan to address the encampment. He said he got that timeline last week.

He said that for the next two weeks, the church will be notifying those staying on the property of the change and if the Aug. 1 deadline isn’t met, they’ll continue with the lawsuit and potentially other enforcement action.

The city has provisions for fines for zoning code violations, but assessing those fines requires court action, Hindoien said.

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

“There’s no scenario under which we just get to go do things on other people’s property,” Hindoien said.

He said the process has taken time because they’ve attempted to work with the church and were aware of other agencies working to address longer term solutions for homelessness.

Hindoien said he hasn’t see any circumstance in which the city has gone straight to court for zoning issues without attempting to work with the property owner.

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

He said he’s hopeful the church will live up to its commitment to remove the encampment by Aug. 1.

Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton said the department has had 164 calls for service to the church since Jan. 1, with 22 arrests and 71 citations.

Multiple calls for police at downtown church on Friday

He said the bulk of the citations have been disorderlies and alcohol violations, but are seeing a concerning increase in those resisting arrest.

Newton said they’re working with mental health and addiction service providers to try to offer services to those interacting with police when possible.

Newton said that he’s heard people say that it’s easier for law enforcement if the people are concentrated in one area, but he said that drains resources and takes attention from other areas of the city.