GREAT FALLS — Tuesday’s city zoning meeting was a full house as people from all over Great Falls gathered to voice their concerns regarding the First United Methodist Church’s attempt at receiving a conditional use permit for an emergency homeless shelter.
An encampment has been on the church’s property since the winter of 2021 when Pastor Jeff Wakely noticed homeless people struggling with the cold weather. Attempting to lend a helping hand, the pastor let the homeless stay on the property and began the encampment in the parking lot despite breaking zoning codes.
He explained that it was all in the name of the church’s mission. “It is our mission to help those in need and not turn a blind eye.”
A conditional use permit is a planning tool used to make an exception to zoning ordinances on a piece of land. The discussion to approve or deny the permit started with Great Falls city planning and development director Craig Raymond, who urged the board to vote against the permit as the encampment violates several zoning laws.
“The proposal, as it exists today, we just feel that it is not something that could be supported,” he explained.
Wakely argued for the church’s decision to let the homeless camp on site, saying that the lack of affordable housing in Great Falls is the real problem: “I want to make it clear. This is not a homeless issue; this is a housing issue.”
When it was the public’s turn to comment, the board members received a handful of opinions ranging from concern about public safety to others siding with the church’s idea.
One person said, “Something needs to be done about the homeless problem, but this isn’t the way to do it.” Another added that she’s scared for her and her childrens' safety.
Some business owners also expressed concern, arguing that allowing the encampment to go unchecked affects their businesses negatively.
Those in favor of the encampment disagreed with the accusations of danger, saying that the homeless need opportunities to help their situations such as the church’s shelter.
All in all, the public seemed to agree on finding the solution that works best for the homeless, whether that includes the church’s attempt at helping or not.
In the end, the planning advisory board unanimously voted against the permit. The city is committed to finding a solution to the homeless situation, and encourages people to reach out with additional ideas so that Great Falls can remain safe and great for all of its residents.