Half an hour before the doors opened, a line flowed down all 10 wide steps and onto the sidewalk around First United Methodist Church in anticipation of Thursday’s Project Homeless Connect event.

“If I was rich, I’d be giving money to these people,” said Maggie DuMontier, whose little dog, Mexicano, poked out of her coat as she waited for a helping hand on a winter day. “Here you can look around and get the help you need.”

DuMontier received a bag of dog food for Mexicano, a T-shirt and new coat for herself, and a little time during which she didn’t have to justify her circumstances to anyone. She shared an apartment with her son and two other roommates in Missoula, but said she’d spent some time on the streets here, in Helena and in Washington.

Connecting with people like DuMontier, who have a home or may have recently lost one, may be the most cost-effective way of helping the less fortunate, according to project spokesman Michael Moore of United Way of Missoula County. It’s two to 10 times cheaper to help with first and last month’s rent than to pay the $25,000 or more that racks up when a long-term homeless person has a health crisis that results in an ambulance ride, emergency room visit and hospitalization.

“Those bills get paid by the community one way or another,” Moore said. “We’re trying to find ways to short-circuit that process.”

Thursday marked the seventh time Project Homeless Connect has shared its resources. Before noon, at least 150 people got to visit the basement and take their tour through the offerings.

Each was assisted by one of the roughly 200 volunteers. A visit started with a short survey, partly to assess the person’s needs and partly to help the project get a fresh picture of the homeless situation in Missoula.

Cellist and University of Montana student Eric Russell played in the church sanctuary as people waited for their turn to go downstairs. In the church basement, a bustling scene filled the main meeting room and all the surrounding classrooms, nooks and bathrooms. Even the stage was transformed into an alphabetized storage area for backpacks and other gear.

What looked like a coat rack for guests was actually a coat rack of gifts – donated winter gear for anyone who needed it. Across the room was the sewing station for those who couldn’t part with the gear they came with, even though it was parting from them.

Terry Vick was replacing a needle on her sewing machine as she prepared to fit a new lining into a man’s winter coat. Although there was little of the original nylon shell to work with, she was determined to restore what she could.

“We all have our favorite things,” she said. “One guy brought in a pair of gloves to see if I could fix them. They’d been burned in a campfire and there’s no hope. You and I would go get a new one, but these were his favorites. So we’ll give it a try.”

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The bathroom area was transformed into a barber’s station, with one person washing hair and three people cutting it.

“The haircuts are really, really popular,” said volunteer Pam Walzer, whose second client of the day was just about to reach the shampoo station. “There’s a half-hour or more wait. So many people just enjoy not looking ragged any more.”

A screened room provided privacy for dental and medical checkups.

“I don’t know how we got all these dental techs,” Moore said. “We have a whole host of them downstairs, seeing people by the dozen. So many people were willing to give up a day of their vacation time for a chance to serve.”

Ironically, the cornucopia of offerings was too much for several people. One man sat outside the church, asking passers-by if they wanted to buy a cigarette for $5. He was shaking.

“I couldn’t stand to be in there with all the people there,” he said, declining to give his name. “I just threw the paperwork on the table and walked out.”

A friend, also anonymous, said he held it together long enough to pick out a new light coat and some toiletries, before he too had to leave the crowd.

“I’ve been on the street a lot of years in this town,” he said. “I don’t get along with the staff at the Pov (Poverello Center). But things are getting a little better here. Housing is still the biggest problem.”

“This is great for people who are lost and can’t find their way,” said a man named Robbie. “Me, I don’t need clothes. But I got front and back lights for my bike. And a good sandwich. Thank you, and thanks for all you’re doing.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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