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Shelterfirst keeps people from freezing.

March 23, 2023

March 23, 2023

We’ve been helping get homeless people off the streets at night during the cold weather.

Shelter First is when Billings First Congregational church gives floor sleeping space to street people. 

When I arrived at the church at 6:15pm, I spotted dozens of folks gathered at the church front door.  Most recognized me from previous evenings and seemed welcoming.  Some were wheelchair bound.  Signs on the door requested the folks not crowd and to give way to the disabled.  The folks, in various stages of life, clothed in a variety of ways, mostly seemed patient.

Corey has a walker—the good kind with handle grips and a seat—festooned with his blankets and bags for his belongings.  He was at the head of the line, smoking a cigarette.  The others formed a line behind him that ran down the wheelchair ramp that zigzagged to the sidewalk below.  I heard banter among the mostly men, a few women, with the word “fuck.”   One man asked me in a strained voice, “How long do we have to wait?”  

Turns out the chief of security, a masked and gloved fellow named Dan, didn’t make them wait long.  He got them indoors early before the official opening time on an evening snowy and painfully fucking cold with a wind.

The homeless folk gathered inside the vestibule behind a ribbon barrier, the kind you see in airports when you wait in line.

These would have been known as hobos or hippies or worse names.  Mostly Whites, some Natives, a few Hispanics, two Blacks, old, young, men, women, trans.

One neatly dressed woman had recently started working as a housekeeper at Billings Clinic.  She couldn’t yet afford an apartment, so she came to Shelter First.

Another person told me he preferred Shelter First to the Rescue Mission.  He didn’t say why.

One night they each got a sack lunch (bologna sandwich, bag of chips), a pack of meat sticks, and a bottle of water.  Most of the quiet eaters sat at the periphery of the church lobby on straight-back or easy chairs.  

A few of the more animated, like Henry, a hip-looking dude with long black hair and black beard, sat at a central table, contemplating some of the deeper aspects of existence.  An intoxicated Northern Cheyenne woman, whom I recognized from Lame Deer, is an army veteran.  She was glad to see me, but when I asked her about her circumstances, she told me not to worry about it, so I didn’t pursue the subject.

I didn’t get the full name of Mark, a short-haired fellow who declined a proffered heavy winter coat, protesting that he is a minimalist—doesn’t want any extra stuff beyond what he wears on his back.

Lita Pepion, the general manager of Shelter First, voiced appreciation for his minimalist way.  Lita is Blackfoot, cheerful, thoughtful.  She said she often helps provide used shoes, mostly, from a large closet, labeled “Free Store.”  The store has new underwear, socks, used pants and shirts.  Demand is high for sweat pants and sweatshirts.

Let me start over.

P. and I have been volunteering at Shelter First this past month, or so.  Some nights the cold temps out there were brutal:  17 below with strong winds.  Another day the temp was about 40 degrees.  

One severely cold night I helped a guy get a ham sandwich whose hands were so cold and frostbitten he could hardly hold it.  The only other fare that night was granola bars, vanilla custard cups, and water.  Our pastor, Lisa Harmon, helped me get the young man the ham sandwich.

Despite the scant food offering, one of the men insisted someone say grace.

As I said, the two sleeping rooms barely hold 31 sleeping mats, with about a foot, or less, of floor separating them.  Perhaps a half-dozen cots line the walls, reserved for the sickest and oldest.  One man had been hit by a car and had a crushed knee.  He got a cot, but moaned in pain.  He thanked me when I turned down the room light.

Two rooms:  the one with mostly (but not all) women and girls held about 14 mats.  The larger room held 16.  One person slept in the hallway.

The routine:  everyone enters the church, but waits near the doorway until they are checked in, one by one.  Some of them are married couples.  At first we made them separate to sleep in separate rooms, but that practice was abandoned after a few weeks.  

Each person gets checked for weapons, then screened by a Crisis Center social worker for COVID symptoms.  

Dan, who has a remarkable way of communicating with and remembering each individual’s name, has them put their personal effects (often a backpack and coat) in a numbered tote.  A few carry loads of blankets.  Another has an army duffel bag.

A one-eyed blonde woman with hair cut short is denied entry for an unknown reason.  She said her belongings had been stolen.  Dan helped her get a coat and boots.  Only the boots didn’t fit.  She was shuttled off to the Crisis Center later.

Another woman, a transgender person, refused to let a security guard named Gary screen her for weapons.  She screamed that her rights were being violated and that we should all burn in the fires of hell.  I looked away and heard a crash when one of the stanchions got knocked over.  She continued screaming, sitting on the floor.  Our pastor phoned the police and two bearded plainclothes officers took her away in cuffs.  The rest of us in the lobby of the church sat in stunned silence.

When the door closed as the trio departed the church, the room erupted in applause.  I don’t know if any of us felt truly cursed by the transgender woman, but I sensed a general relief that the commotion had resolved.

A legless man in a wheelchair was wheeled in by his helper.  The wheelchair-bound man was obviously intoxicated—so much so, that Dan told him that he wouldn’t let him stay if he were that drunk the next day.  I was there the next evening, and the legless man was in much better condition.  Dan prepared a fairly thick camping mattress for him, with pillows and blankets.  I think the man’s helper left after wheeling him in.

Some evenings the suppers—hamburgers and fries—came from a west-end mega-church, another night, a caterer brought in pulled pork sandwiches with baked beans on the side.  The 31 diners seemed to feel well.  At least they were talking quietly.

Super Bowl Sunday Lita treated the “houseless neighbors” to a big-screen TV and lots of pizza.

The most important thing to give is respect.  

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  1. Blaine permalink

    Good for you and P and the others at the Congregational Church for doing what you are doing. FYI the Oregon legislature has just passed a $200 million dollar bill to help homeless people with mini homes, fenced, guarded, bathroom facilities, social services, mental health services. It is a big undertaking but it is a beginning.

  2. Larry F. permalink

    Dan – I was delighted to see new postings from you. Keep up the good work and the Good Works!

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