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Springtime on the streets of Billings

April 26, 2023

April 23, 2023

Stories from our homeless shelter.  Some 30-40 people would queue at the front door of the church each afternoon; although some, like Robert, sat at the nearby bus stop bench, bearing the cold weather.  Seating space was scarce near the church.

Five days ago our church’s homeless shelter closed until next Fall.  This, I was told, by order of the Billings Fire Marshal.

I spoke with a fellow, Robert, several times over the past four months when First Congregational in downtown Billings hosted 31 or fewer people nightly.  Lisa Harmon, pastor, said this amounted to a bit more than 3,000 person-nights.  

Robert was a regular at the shelter. Quiet, middle-aged, dressed for the weather.

He often wore a fur cap pulled over his ears, wheeled his belongings in a metal carry-all.  I saw clean clothes stuffed between the wires.  He wore tan overalls, several coats, boots, cloth gloves.

Today I stopped to visit with Robert at his usual bus stop near the church.  I was early, to sing in the choir.  

He wore a wide-brim camo hat this time.  He had several days of stubble on his chin.

After I greeted him, he asked me how my day was going, as he usually does.  

I handed him a banknote that had been a gift to me from Mrs. Johnson, my neighbor who said she wanted me to take my wife out to eat.  She was thanking me for clearing her walk a couple of times last winter.  I told Robert the provenance of the money and he promised to repay me.  I suggested he could pass it along if he felt the need.  He folded the bill, inserting it in his glove.  I said I hoped it would buy him something to give him comfort.  He said he planned to get some macaroni and cheese.  He smacked his lips.

I asked him how his night had been; he had a pained expression and said he spent the night at the Montana Rescue Mission, but he vowed never to return.  He said people “yelled and screamed” and acted mean there.

He said he planned to visit the local Crisis Center after this. I didn’t ask him why he was homeless.

Our conversations usually focused on high school sports, especially for class C schools like his home town Stanford, Montana, a roadside town between Lewistown and Great Falls.  

Robert played basketball for Stanford years ago at a tournament in Havre.  He said they were pretty good, but after he graduated high school the team went downhill.  He played football, too.  

He told me of Stanford’s famous albino wolf in the museum, mounted and displayed in a case.

Several other denizens of the shelter attended church today, including Lavita, a pretty Native who sometimes instigated singing at the shelter with what I called her “sisterly sisters.”  

These folks sometimes sat around the central table in the church narthex, talking, giggling, teasing one another.  

Today she gave me a hug.  She reminded me that as I walked past their table I danced a bit to their tune.  Hard not to.  I loved the sense of ease she and the others displayed, despite the fragile nature of their existence.  (All of our existences?)  Another woman, Brenda, always had a kind word for us volunteer helpers.

Another woman, Amanda, said she was Crow, born in Bozeman when her parents attended Montana State University.  For her, English was a second language.  I only encountered her a couple of evenings at the shelter.

Jim was a volunteer whom I met about once a week.  Sometimes he brought his grandson.  Jim’s daughter supplied a dozen pizzas one evening.  Jim came from Hardin, Montana, but he grew up in Billings, rode his motorcycle to the shelter.

The volunteers were only slightly less interesting than those who came for shelter.  Until you lingered with the group it was hard to tell the volunteers from the homeless guests.


—one woman looked like a middle-aged housewife experiencing life on the street for the first time.  Did she have a fight with her family?

—Jack, an older man with long white hair, looked like an academic.  He was one of several with a notebook sticking from his pack.

—a young man, Johnny, had only the clothes on his back.  He looked barely out of his teens.  When I mentioned that he reminded me of a television actor on “Portlandia,” he replied that he hears that often.

—Randy carried a pack in back and a quilt in front.  The last time I saw him he was nearly incoherent and played with a dental bridge with his tongue.

—Timothy was an ex-Marine from a tribe in central or northern Montana.  He grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go until I promised to pray for him.  I pulled my hand back.  “Right now,” he said, so I did, silently.

—Dean always wore a sports jersey and seemed too chipper for the occasion.

—Tim (different guy than Timothy, above) got around slowly with a walker.  He spoke softly and his clothes were invariably soiled so he daily needed a new set: socks, trousers, shirt.  He had a supply of candy that he enjoyed on the sly.  We stocked up a supply of size 32 waist pants for him.  He seemed well-known and well-liked by volunteers, mental health workers and the other street folks.

—another 10-15 persons each evening perched about the narthex on various chairs.  Some new people, some familiar faces whom I didn’t meet.  Some I met only once and I don’t recall their names.

After the shelter closed for the season a bunch of us volunteers cleaned the sleeping rooms.  It was a “low barrier” shelter, so we often admitted people who were high or drunk, as long as they weren’t too disruptive.  

But we did find a methamphetamine pipe, a syringe, some goldfish crackers complete with mouse droppings.  These things didn’t trouble me, much.  Like I said, we had more than 3,000 person-night stays and mostly trouble-free.

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