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Unsheltered people in Montana worry after a homeless man was killed


Rural areas across the country saw a surge in population during COVID, particularly outdoor recreation destinations like ski towns. Those places also saw a surge in unsheltered populations as wealthier new arrivals drove housing prices up and affordable rental vacancies down. This new version of rural poverty is not being received well in some places, like Kalispell, Mont., which has seen a rise in violence that recently turned deadly. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.


AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: On a warm evening, a band warms up at a popular park in downtown Kalispell, population 30,000. People stroll under the shade of evergreens, munching on bites from food trucks. Others lounge on the lawn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What's going on?

BOLTON: Kalispell is a popular tourism destination about 30 miles from the towering peaks of Glacier National Park. During the pandemic, Kalispell became one of the fastest growing cities of its size in America. Home prices have gone up by nearly 50% since 2020. There's a shortage of rentals, and the local emergency shelter has seen the population it serves double to more than 300 people last winter. Stroll around the park and there are visible signs of the unsheltered population. A pair of crutches lies under a tree. Nearby is someone sleeping on a bench. There's been a noticeable increase in the number of people living on the streets. Randy Brodehl has been county commissioner here for five years. Like most registered voters here, he's a Republican, and he says the growing number of unsheltered people is a problem.

RANDY BRODEHL: Families are able to use our parks and our trails less and less because of the fear they have of being accosted by transients and vagrants in our community.

BOLTON: Earlier this year, Brodehl and his fellow Republican commissioners penned an open letter that called on locals to, quote, "stop enabling the homeless lifestyle" and claimed without evidence that local shelters were attracting people from other states. He says cleaning up homeless encampments is costing the county real money.

BRODEHL: The reality is the letter was to remind our community that people that are takers of taxpayer services without being part of the community are really who is causing hundreds of thousands of dollars - maybe a million dollars this year - in costs to the taxpayer.

BOLTON: Back at the park, Jessi Green is walking down a local bike path as the sun sets.

JESSI GREEN: I wonder if we should go to Woodland first.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, yeah, we should go to...

BOLTON: Green is a 45-year-old veteran with a peppered, gray beard. He fell on hard times when he hurt his back, making it hard for him to work. Now he lives on the streets. Lately, he walks the local trails when it starts to get dark to check on unsheltered people he knows as they head to camp. It's a routine he started recently.

GREEN: It was right when Scott died. I didn't feel the need to do that before.

BOLTON: Scott is 60-year-old Scott Bryan, who lived unsheltered in Kalispell. One night in June, police say 19-year-old Kaleb Fleck beat him to death and then bragged about it on video posted to social media that shows Bryan motionless, bleeding, face-down in a gas station parking lot. Green says he knew Bryan.

GREEN: Scott had brain injuries and - you know what I mean? He beat cancer. He had a lot of things wrong with him, and he was very, very small in stature, you know what I mean? So it's like, yo, to me, you a punk because you target individuals like that or you wait till individuals are vulnerable, and then you target them.

BOLTON: Green descends a hill into a local park. There are clothes drying on the line, sleeping bags and other evidence of camps.

GREEN: Look, you see that? So you know somebody be over here, right?

BOLTON: Green says homeless people here are scared after Bryan was killed. They think the letter from County Commissioner Brodehl disparaging them is directly related to him being attacked. Green says it's become harder to find people he knows.

GREEN: They're hiding.

BOLTON: Green says, soon after the letter was published, unsheltered people here were harassed more. There were more physical attacks. He hoped Bryan's murder would end that, but says harassment and violence continue.


GREEN: Is that Ms. Mary? What are you doing walking around by yourself, Ms. Mary?

BOLTON: Under the shade of towering pine trees in a local park, Mary Doxey is walking back from doing some errands. Doxey has housing right now, but has fallen in and out of homelessness over the years.

MARY DOXEY: And I'm walking by myself, and I ain't got no pepper spray. And I had to walk all the way over to Appleway.

GREEN: Oh, you're just stubborn.

DOXEY: I know.

GREEN: You know what it is. You're just stubborn.

DOXEY: (Laughter).

BOLTON: She knows all too well the risk she's taking. Two months ago, she says a group of young men attacked her and a man she was with.

DOXEY: And they kicked Jimbo in the head and kicked him in the ribs, but they were surrounding me.

BOLTON: She ran away and called 911. Homeless shelters across Montana have reported similar spikes in attacks, though they aren't officially tracking data. Donald Whitehead with the National Coalition for the Homeless says it's part of a national trend.

DONALD WHITEHEAD: During COVID, we were seeing an increase in violence, and it again correlates with the five-year increase in unsheltered homelessness.

BOLTON: Homelessness nationwide hit record levels in 2022, and the coalition says violent attacks against unsheltered people increased 5% between 2020 and 2022. Whitehead expects the trend to worsen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: What kind do you think we should get - just, like, chocolate chip?

BOLTON: At a grocery store not far from where Scott Bryan was murdered, a group of friends are picking up water, bug spray and energy bars to hand out to unsheltered locals.





BOLTON: Jason Bell, who helped start this group, works with homeless populations as part of his day job. He started joining these nightly walks after Scott Bryan was killed. He's happy to spend his own money and time to help out any way he can.

JASON BELL: We didn't know what to do, especially after such a big situation. And, you know, people were attacked prior, and we knew that was going on - but just that something had to be done.

BOLTON: Bell says it's not just about handing out supplies. They want to show the unsheltered community that people care about how they're doing as attacks continue to happen. As they walk across the parking lot, they see a young woman they regularly meet who tells them she just found housing.



BOLTON: She nearly tackles each member of the group as she hugs them in excitement. It's one bright spot before they continue down the trail to let others know they're here to support them.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Kalispell, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.