Homeless Outside

Rickey Burns talks Wednesday about sleeping outside in Missoula the last few nights equipped only with what he can carry in his backpack. About 50 homeless people are estimated to be camping out each night recently in Missoula.

Tiny flakes of snow fell with abandon on his head Wednesday afternoon, and wind chill values promised to plummet to zero after dark again.

Rickey Burns stood in front of Fresh Market on West Broadway and talked about spending another night outside.

Whatever happens while sleeping in a camp by the Clark Fork River wouldn’t match Monday night.

“The other night, when that wind was blowing sideways, I mean it was insane,” said Burns, 49. “When you think the wind’s blowing from the northeast, OK, cool, you set your little tarp over you so that when it blows it at least blows off of you. But then when you’re down there it starts to swirl. So you’re screwed.”

There’s no handbook for being homeless in the jaws of winter.

The 175 beds at the Poverello Center down the street are maxing out nightly. Sixty-seven people spent Tuesday night in the Salvation Army overnight shelter on South Russell Street.

“We would try to get in 24 to 30 last year at the (Union Gospel) Mission, so it has doubled,” said volunteer Terri Wood, who works the overnight shift.

Still, some 50 people are camping out each night under bridges, on river banks and in abandoned sheds as one of Missoula’s snowiest and coldest Februarys reaches an end. That number isn’t counting many others who are living out of cars, said Hannah Higgins, coordinator for Poverello’s Homeless Outreach Team.

Burns wore a 65-pound backpack that had weighed closer to 85 when he stepped off a bus from Butte last Thursday evening.

“You’ve really got to decide what’s essential. And you’ll find real quick: I don’t need that. I won’t use this, I can do without that,” he said.

Inside were hand warmers and a sleeping bag good for 10 below. He received that and the high-quality parka he wore from Action Inc. in Butte after he was evicted — he says illegally — from the $400 apartment in which he was living.

He’s got a sleeping mat in the side pocket of the back pack that he’ll lay on a piece of cardboard.

“And I’ve got a tarp that’s pretty decent, so I just fold it over like a taco and get in there, and the snow doesn’t get me,” he said. “But when you wake up it’s a lot colder than you thought it was.”

It doesn’t help that his neck and spine are fused with “a lot of titanium,” which makes him “super cold” in the morning.

Tents are rare in the homeless enclave. You can’t leave them during the day for fear of theft, and they’re unwieldy to pack around.

“You can’t really go into the Pov” with a tent on your back, Burns said.

“Space is at a premium down there,” Burns said. “Just say you’re standing in the chow line. I can’t turn because I’ll knock somebody over or somebody’s in a wheelchair or something. It’s like carrying another person on top of you.”

Lean-to’s and tarps are common in the camp he’s in. Even on the coldest night you won’t see a campfire.

“It’ll attract the cops,” said Burns. “So you get a Folgers can, a metal can, and put a roll of toilet paper in there and a whole bottle of isopropyl alcohol. It burns real faint blue but super hot so, yeah, you can keep yourself warm.

“Then you warm some rocks around you like the river rocks, the big ones, and after your fire goes out you put some rocks in your sleeping bag. At the foot. Don’t put them up any higher. It does pretty good for heat.”

Burns, a Texan, moved to Missoula years ago and installed sprinklers for landscaping companies until he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary for selling marijuana. After 18 months in custody in Deer Lodge, he was sent to the pre-release facility in Butte and was working two jobs there when he received the eviction notice.

“So I got stuck outside and it was, like, 16 below not counting wind chill,” he said. “They said, well, we can send you to Billings, Helena, Missoula — any place with a shelter and we’ll pay for the bus ticket there.”

Burns chose the only option with which he was familiar and landed in the Garden City with no place to go. He’s waiting with fading hope for a ruling in Butte on 12 months of back pay he said he’s owed after the disability checks he received because of a broken back were cut off when he was in prison.

“So here I am toting a backpack and homeless as hell,” he said. Burns added he’s able and very willing to work if he can find someone to hire him. He’ll do anything he can to get out of his current situation.

Meanwhile, he’s spending parts of his days online at the public library, trying to make inroads into the job market and an income tax dilemma. He was at the Pov for lunch Wednesday but said it’s “insane” there when it’s this crowded.

“I would much rather, I think, sleep outside than deal with that,” he said. “It’s not the staff as much as it is the folks that are there. It’s cutthroat and there’s opportunistic folks all around. I couldn’t set my pack down to save my life right now.”

Night camps aren’t warm places in any sense of the word.

“It’s almost cliquish,” Burns said. “If you’re a drinker you hang out with your drinkers. There’s a bunch of dope fiends. They’re over there and they’ve got no gear, they’re just out there getting high and trying to get out of there.”

Burns said it’s surprising how many “young ladies” are in camp, some appearing to be as young as 17.

“There’s quite a few of them that are, like, runaways (who) ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s incredible,” he said.

He keeps a low profile in camp.

“I just try to find my little spot and duck out, which has been all right,” Burns said.

That doesn’t mean he sleeps well.

“I’ve got a mental health tag — PTSD, ADHD and all that. I very rarely sleep anyway because I’ve got a lot of issues about closing my eyes,” he said. “I have a lot of nightmares from my dad. He was a meth cook and just an insane fellow, not a kind fellow at all.

“When I’m awake I can compartmentalize it, but when you’re asleep you’re vulnerable. So my game is not to have to sleep unless I can’t help it, especially in a tenuous situation like this. When you wake up you don’t know where the hell you’re at half the time.”

Burns’ situation as a homeless man is neither ordinary nor extraordinary, said Higgins, of the Poverello’s Homeless Outreach Team.

The HOT team tries to make contact with almost all campers at least once a week, more when it’s this cold out. They've put word out that donations of propane, socks and warm weather gear are always needed and appreciated. So far this winter, no one has succumbed to the elements as far as she knows. 

“A lot of people don’t understand why one would choose to camp instead of going to a shelter,” Higgins said. “There are a lot of preconceived notions that people who are campers are drug users or criminals or what have you. There are so many stigmas around the homeless in the first place, but especially with people camping.

“We’re working to change that mentality.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian