Downtown church, GFPD working to address issues at downtown church

The First United Methodist Church at the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 6th Street North downtown has posted no trespass signs on their property in an effort to address the repeated issue at the church.

Rev. Dawn Skerritt and church officials are planning to begin actively trespassing people who engage in criminal behavior and/or contribute to problems in the area, according to a release.

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For the last year and a half, the church has been allowing people to congregate, sleep and camp on the property.

In the spring, a tent encampment developed in the back parking lot area of the property, causing the city to file a lawsuit against the church for violating the city zoning codes.

The church had the encampment removed on Aug. 1 and the city withdrew its lawsuit.

Encampment removed from downtown church

The church has said that they’re providing a place for homeless people to sleep, but based on interviews and outreach by local groups, many living there are not homeless but like to gather and socialize.

Area residents and businesses have complained about the situation and the increase in disorderly conduct, vandalism, theft, assaults and other criminal activity.

City officials have said in multiple meetings that they’ve been monitoring the situation but couldn’t do much to remove people from private property if the property owner allowed it. The Great Falls Police Department has responded to a significant number of calls at the church over the last year.

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From Jan. 1 to mid-July this year, Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton said the department had 164 calls for service to the church, with 22 arrests and 71 citations.

From Aug. 1 to Nov. 15, there had been 87 calls for service to the church, according to GFPD.

Skerritt, FUMC’s pastor, reached out to GFPD to request a meeting to discuss the repeated issues at their property. According to a GFPD release, the meeting included Newton, Capt. John Schaffer, Skerritt and a member of the FUMC board of directors.

Multiple calls for police at downtown church on Friday

The group collaboratively decided to take the following action, according to the release:

  • FUMC plans to refocus on their ministry, and provide services to those who need it;
  • Implement processes to criminally trespass individuals from their property who are gathering there to engage in criminal activity. Skerritt and the FUMC requested GFPD’s assistance in this area.

“FUMC has taken positive step forward by working with GFPD to address the behaviors of some individuals on their property. This allows FUMC and GFPD to collectively take a more proactive role. We plan to keep the community apprised of changes to this partnership, as some peripheral issues/concerns may arise,” according to the release.

Downtown church withdraws permit application for tent encampment

FUMC plans to have staff at the church to provide services, including referrals to other entities focused on assisting the homeless population.

“Both the GFPD and the FUMC recognize criminal enforcement is not the answer to homelessness; our collaborative goal is to remove those individuals who have no interest in FUMC or any services they provide. We anticipate the no trespassing notifications and enforcement to begin within the next few days,” according to the release.

Zoning board denies permit request for tent encampment at downtown church

Skerritt wrote on the FUMC Facebook page on Nov. 15 that “this is a nuanced solution to a complex issue.”

She wrote that the unsheltered people on the property had a head’s up that the no trespassing signs were being installed “after months of criminal activity on the property (not all of that can be pinned on those without homes by the way). We will continue to provide food and personal belongings to those in need. Unwanted crime makes loving your neighbors hard, and as we learned the hard way, brought undue violence to the unsheltered people.”

The Great Falls Rescue Mission said Nov. 15 that the Cameron Family Center is full. The women’s and men’s shelters have limited capacity and cold weather services are available.

“We will do our best to accommodate and make room for individuals that need to get out of the cold and into a warm place,” Carrie Matter of the mission told The Electric

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

Skerritt wrote that she’s taken heat from many sources and will likely continue to do so but she and the congregation are partnering with GPPD “so that we may continue to provide the services that we are equipped for with those experiencing extreme poverty.”

She wrote that it would take round the clock security at the church to allow people to continue to reside on the property and “our church does not have the resources to do so.”

Outreach efforts expanding for homelessness, addressing issues at downtown church

Skerritt aske those who want to help the community’s unsheltered to advocate for more government subsidized housing units; a Medicaid and private insurance run detox center; inpatient beds for acute mental health needs; low barrier shelters; and post-felony employment.