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Response to the County Commissioners' Letter on Homelessness

Letter to the editor

January 26, 2023

By Hilary Shaw

As I read the January 21st letter on homelessness from our county commissioners, I landed on a sweet memory from June of 2014. We were gathered on the sunny lawn at the Samaritan House for an awareness event about homelessness in the Flathead. Various speakers celebrated the community’s efforts, spearheaded by many of the same key players you see today: Samaritan House, Community Action Partnership, Abbie Shelter, Job Service, the Health Department, the School District, and others. You can read about that event here.

One speaker was particularly moving to all of us. He spoke with openness and bravery about his own experience brushing up against homelessness.

“In 2007 we lost what was essentially a family fortune. And in 2008 we lost our home, my wife and I. If it hadn’t been for a trailer we bought in 1974, we would have been homeless. We’re all just a few steps away from being homeless.”

That speaker was Cal Scott. He was one of our elected Flathead County Commissioners at the time.

80% of unhoused people are homeless only once and in the short term. The leading cause of becoming unhoused is a loss of financial stability and the subsequent loss of being able to afford rent or mortgage payments. The second leading cause of homelessness is domestic violence. People who suffer from chronic homelessness usually also suffer from untreated mental illness and addiction. They hold shocking trauma histories. People who are homeless face many barriers – lack of affordable housing, lack of public transportation, lack of mental health providers accepting Medicaid, to name a few – when trying to regain their stability.

Placing blame for suffering on the sufferer is an old (outdated) trope. It is often used by those in power to deflect attention from their ineffective leadership, and to draw our eyes away from their neglect of their neediest constituents. Discrediting unhoused people perpetuates the suppression of their voices (and amplifies the voices of those who complain about them). It is a leadership tactic that seeks to turn us against our neighbors instead of seeing ourselves reflected in the suffering of others.

Every person in Flathead County is deserving of dignity and care. That care includes accountability. Our community’s nonprofit and public agencies work tirelessly to meet the unmet needs of the suffering - housing and mental health care at the top - while providing healthy boundaries. (After all, you can’t have empathy without boundaries.) Collaborative Housing Solutions is a group of nearly 20 local nonprofits and public agencies who meet regularly to coordinate care and address homelessness in the long-term. This includes a Homeless Outreach Team who walks out into the community to connect unhoused people with the resources they need. This team visits the Gazebo 1-3 times each week.

Eight years after that sunny June day on the Samaritan House lawn, I am still grateful for the words of Cal Scott. I am grateful for my fellow leaders in our vibrant nonprofit sector in this community - bold, efficacious, and committed people who are carrying the torch to serve and see and honor our neediest neighbors. Our job is to elevate their voices and their stories so that others may listen. We have done our important work without the support of our county commissioners for years. We will continue to do so if we must… and imagine what we could accomplish with the collaboration of effective county leadership.

Hilary Shaw

Executive Director


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