Chris Krager isn’t exactly sure what caused the apparent surge in homelessness that’s forced Kalispell’s largest homeless shelter, The Samaritan House, to turn away an unusually high number of people recently.
According to Krager, the shelter’s director, 53 people, 17 of whom were children, have been denied admittance since June 1 due to lack of space at the 40-bed shelter. For all of last year, the shelter turned away just 205 people.
“It’s a pretty safe bet to say we’re full all the time,” Krager says, “but we’ve turned away an inordinate amount of people lately.”
He suggests the possibility that the increase is connected to the rapid rise in the cost of housing in the Flathead, but admits that’s just a guess.
Bob Chivsano, manager of Kalispell’s only other homeless shelter, A Ray of Hope, which can house 20, says he’s also seen an influx of people seeking shelter, but did not have exact numbers. Like Krager, he is uncertain of the cause.
In the meantime, homeless people in the area don’t have many other options. The Samaritan House and A Ray of Hope are the only homeless shelters between Coeur d’Alene and Browning and between Missoula and the Canadian border.
When people are turned away from The Samaritan House, Krager says, he usually tries to give them a “shot in the arm” of information about where to find food, how to apply for welfare, and how to pursue work and affordable housing. Krager says he isn’t always sure where his would-be clients end up, but he believes some move closer to family, some sleep in their cars until they find shelter, and others find a spot to camp outside.
One such camp is in a swampy patch of woods west of Kalispell encircled by the Evergreen Wal-Mart, the Stillwater River and the Conrad Memorial Cemetery.
In the spring of last year, Jeremy Raskiewicz and Edward Grogg camped there after The Samaritan House kicked them out for refusing to accept job offers.
Krager explains that given the demands on its space, the shelter doesn’t allow people “not motivated to end their homeless situation” to stick around.
So Raskiewicz and Grogg set up camp behind the Wal-Mart, where, in March 2005, Grogg stabbed another transient man several times. The two also beat the man and burned him with a frying pan. Raskiewicz pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon and received 20 years in prison, with 12 years suspended. Grogg pleaded guilty to attempted deliberate homicide and received 50 years with 20 suspended.
The victim, Ralph Sisco, nearly died, but after a long hospital stay he was eventually sent to The Samaritan House to recuperate. Afterward he moved into a subsidized apartment, at which point, Krager says, he lost track of Sisco.
In the wake of the stabbing, local law enforcement cleared the woods of homeless campers. In late May of this year, all that remained were skittish deer and the detritus of last year’s use: old blankets, sheets of plastic, cardboard and other materials for building temporary shelter, a broken umbrella, dozens of beer cans and, in one spot, a very long strip of yellow police tape.
But by the second week in June the area had been somewhat cleaned up, and many of the discarded materials had been consolidated into a makeshift tent around the base of a pine tree. Inside the hodge-podge tent lives Hubert Glenn Hoffman Jr., a grizzled 66-year-old man with a Doc Holliday mustache.
Hoffman asks me for a beer, a cigarette and a dollar. He sprays a can of lubricating oil onto a lit match to light some twigs and a few pieces of plastic in a legless barbecue grill. The smoke from the burning plastic, he says, keeps the swamp’s swarms of mosquitoes out of his tent.
Hoffman says that this March, after finishing a two-year sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., he took a train to Whitefish, where he received $30 from a local church, which told him about the transient camp.
Hoffman says he was imprisoned at Lompoc for knowing too much about a conspiracy between J.P. Morgan & Co. and the federal government to steal his Social Security checks. As he tries to detail the facts leading to his incarceration, he taps his fingers rapidly on the ground, with his eyes closed tight, as if trying with great frustration to focus on what happened.
According to Lompoc penitentiary records, Hoffman was arrested for importation of marijuana.
Hoffman says his stay in the field behind Wal-Mart is temporary, and that pretty soon he plans to move into a cabin somewhere in Wyoming that reminds him of the cabin his family stayed in when he was a boy. His eyes fill with tears and he changes the subject.
“There’s a miserable limbo,” Krager says, for people like Hoffman, whose apparent mental disabilities are not quite severe enough to force them into an institution, but not mild enough for them to successfully take care of themselves.
But if there were more room to accommodate the area’s homeless, at least fewer people would have to choose to stay in potentially dangerous places.
Money, Krager says, is the chief barrier to increasing space for the area’s homeless.
Running a homeless shelter “is a very expensive proposition,” says Krager. “It tends to be a black hole for money.”
Two-thirds of The Samaritan House’s budget comes from federal grants and revenue from shelter-owned low-income apartments. The other third, he says, “is a question mark,” cobbled together from donations, an unreliable resource.
A Ray of Hope operates entirely on donations.
Krager says there’s always talk of expanding, but that the idea has remained on the back burner at the constantly busy shelter.
In the end, he suggests, if the Flathead is to get a handle on its homeless situation, someone’s going to have to step up and start another shelter.