MISSOULA — When the temperatures dropped to zero last month and the wind blew at gale force, Stacey Barnett and Bear Legault hunkered down in their tent below the Reserve Street bridge, waiting for the weather to pass.
That night, the wind ripped away the door to their tent, starting at the zipper. They stayed warm under layers of blankets, nestled up with their little dogs, each no larger than a cat. They had scored a free mattress off Facebook in the nick of time. It kept them off the frozen ground.
Still relatively new to Missoula, the late October storm was their first taste of what’s to come, and they both know they’re in for a long winter. But their status among Missoula’s chronically homeless isn’t foremost in their thoughts.
Rather, it’s the day-to-day struggles that cause the biggest problems.
“The challenge for me is probably because I have a walker,” said Barnett, pointing to a nearby tree where the walker sat covered in snow. “My first walker got stolen, so we got that one from the Poverello, but the seat’s broken so I can’t really use it. Right now, that’s kind of the main issue for me.”
The couple met at a homeless shelter in Colorado but arrived in Missoula on separate paths. Legault hitchhiked into town and decided to stay. It was “a gut feeling” about the place, as he put it. Barnett fled what she described as a series of broken relationships, each as violent as the next.
Now the two work as a team, making ends meet on $700 a month in disability. When the money runs out, Legault crosses the bridge to “fly a sign.” He prefers North Reserve near the Burger King restaurant.
Respect can be as spotty as the change he collects.
“If I’m out flying a sign, people give me the finger, or when the light turns green, they’ll roll down the window and shout obscenities as they’re driving by,” he said. “When it first started happening, I’d jump out and start yelling back at them. Now I say, ‘God bless you.’ ”
The slanders range from “you lazy bum” to “you piece of shit,” but Legault does what he can to bury his pride and focus on the task at hand. His disability income can last two or three weeks on a good month, though this November he’ll be short, given the generator and two small heaters he bought to warm the tent.
Legault, a burly man in his late 50s, spent one early morning this month wheeling that generator across the bridge in a shopping cart, its wheels clacking and jamming on the gravel used to sand the roads. He spent another hour reading over the directions.
A layer of frost covered the ground, coating the grass in glossy white. Last week’s snow had yet to melt. Their blow-up mattress didn’t help fend off the cold, and when it popped, he went searching for a replacement.
“They had a thing on Facebook marketplace saying free mattresses,” Legault said. “It was like a mile from here, so I rode my bike down there and pushed the mattresses back on a shopping cart.”
The mattresses sit tucked to one side of the tent, which is spacious by tent standards. Piles of blankets rest inside and a mop lays against the tree. Barnett likes to keep the tent clean, saying she sweeps it daily and mops it once a week.
“Even though we’re homeless, if we have an extra cigarette, or extra food or extra blankets, we give them away,” said Barnett, who is in her mid-40s. “It’s just how we are. Right now we’re planning on staying here because he likes it here, but it doesn’t mean we won’t move on.”
The couple’s history is hard to pin down, and there are things they won’t discuss. Legault said he originated in New York and has visited nearly every state in the country. Barnett comes from California, where she and her former husband owned a mobile home before the domestic violence began.
They’re now among a handful of people living unsheltered in pockets around Missoula. They represent a small portion of the homeless population described by local experts as the hardest to reach. But the Poverello and its Homeless Outreach Team are making inroads, working to connect with those who need the greatest help, even if they’re the most reluctant to receive it.
Amy Allison Thompson, the shelter’s executive director, said that over the past year, the shelter has helped house 20 people who had been living in local encampments, including the Reserve Street camp, one of the city’s most notorious and controversial.
“They’re really building long-term relationships with folks who are fearful of accessing traditional services for a variety of reasons,” Thompson said. “They go down to their camps and bring them socks and sandwiches and start that conversation. Over time, they connect them with resources and then housing.”
Barnett, who is dressed in a knitted hat and a coat that’s a little too big, described the outreach team as friendly. They come down once a week, on Wednesdays mostly, with sandwiches and supplies, eager to strike up a conversation.
In past camps in other states, Barnett said, it was just the opposite.
“In Colorado Springs, the Homeless Outreach Team gives you a warming,” she said. “Next time they give you a ticket. The next time they take your stuff without even telling you and throw it away.
“The first time the outreach team came down here, I thought we’d have to move, but instead, they brought sandwiches, gloves and hats,” she added. “They’re so much different than anywhere I’ve ever been. They treat you good here.”
That goes back to the respect that convinced Legault to stay in Missoula, at least for the time being. He arrived over the summer and hasn’t left. He said the city is good to people like him and Barnett. Local advocates look to help instead of running them out of town, or making life hard enough so they leave.
“It’s probably the most welcoming city I’ve come across,” said Legault. “If you go to any city in Washington, Georgia or Texas, or anywhere else, people aren’t as openhearted to the homeless. The thing is, we’re people too. The way the city treats us, I feel like we’re given respect, and that’s a big thing to me, period.”
But while local homeless advocates would like to see the likes of Legault and Barnett leave the camp for permanent housing, the two aren’t sure they can make it work.
For one, Barnett said, one of her two dogs isn’t yet certified as a service dog, and that drives up the required down payment, even if the landlord accepts pets. That down payment is another hurdle on an income of $700. They fear rent and utilities would consume the entirety of their limited income, leaving little means for other needs.
“I mean, I really don’t want to be out here,” said Legault. “But you can’t rent a place and pay your bills for $700 a month. You can’t even move into a place for $700 a month.”
Barnett does most of the talking and says what Legault doesn’t say. She says he has skills and once worked as an electrician. She calls him a “jack-of-all-trades,” but said his disability keeps him from working a regular job.
He said he has a number of issues, ranging from degenerative disc disease to PTSD and walking pneumonia. Barnett has her own ailments that run even longer. She names “multiple personalities,” anxiety, depression, anger management, and an uneven gait.
She points to her shoes. The soles are extra thick and customized to her feet.
“Right now, I have a Section 8 voucher and we’re trying to find housing, but the application fees range from $10 to $60 a piece, and If you don’t get approved you lose the money,” said Barnett. “I have a voucher but we’re on that waiting list for housing.”
The camp below the bridge is Missoula’s largest, and it’s not absent of crime. In 2014, two transients camping below the bridge beat, tortured and murdered another camper before dumping his body in the river. The year before, another transient was accused of raping two underage girls, also near the camp.
But today the camp is quiet. Barnett described the other occupants as “good neighbors.” They placed the population below the bridge at 12 or more, at least “on their side.” A shack stands through the woods and nearby a colorful backpacking tent sits covered in frost.
“We know a few of them. They’re pretty nice,” said Legault. “I have people over for dinner. I cook. I don’t think any of them really know how to cook.”
They share what they can, from cigarettes to food. The couple recently upgraded to a two-burner camping stove and gave their old single burner to a neighbor camped nearby. Still, they’re fearful of leaving their camp unoccupied. They can’t risk to see what little they have stolen during their absence.
But they say it’s no different than the Poverello, and there are other reasons they avoid the shelter.
“You’ve got to worry about people stealing your stuff,” said Legault. “And I have PTSD. I’m not good around other people, and it’s crowded. You’re sleeping right next to somebody else.”
Barnett offered her own reasons.
“For one, we’re not married, so we can’t be together,” she said. “I have a rage. If someone says something mean to me or him, I’d tell them off.”
Then she pointed to one of her dogs.
“The Pov won’t allow her because she’s not service. I can’t go inside because of her.”
A soup pot sits on the stove and last night’s dinner was Top Ramen. But Barnett speaks proudly of Legault’s cooking, saying they indulge from time to time when money allows.
But with winter pushing in and a portion of his pay spent on the generator and two heaters, November will likely be a tight month. They don’t believe it would be any different in permanent housing.
“On disability, it doesn’t do very well and it doesn’t go very far,” said Barnett. “Even if we had a place to live, he’d still be out flying a sign, but he’d be flying a sign sooner than we do now. Now, his income lasts a week or two, though maybe not this month because of what we had to buy.”