I sat on the sidewalk outside the Wilma Theatre, where congregants of Lion’s Den Ministries were arriving for worship, and pretended to be someone I was not—a homeless person. My conscience burned like the cold that stung through my polyester pants.
In preparation for this experiment, to gauge how the public in Missoula treats a homeless man, I hadn’t cut my hair in 11 months or shaved in three weeks. My clothes—trousers four inches too short, ratty tennis shoes, grimy nylon coat—hadn’t been washed in two weeks. I smelled like a dumpster.
I huddled in the cold in plain view. People passed by or stepped over me, opening the door to the church. A gust of warm air whooshed out and thumping rock music broke the silence. In a half hour, 127 souls passed, and I thought, “This is what it feels like to be invisible.” A pedestrian allowed his little gray dog to limp over and sniff me. It wagged its tail and continued with its owner down the sidewalk.
Since I arrived in Missoula as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Montana, I’d encountered panhandlers, seen the campsites along the Clark Fork, heard the laments of downtown business owners and read the news articles about city ordinances disallowing panhandling, but the media accounts lacked the voice of the homeless themselves. I wondered what life on the streets in Missoula is like. How do people respond to the homeless? That moment, the idea took hold: I’d dress and behave as a homeless person and see for myself. I enlisted my University of Montana nonfiction-writing students to shadow me and discreetly collect the names and phone numbers of people I encountered so they could be interviewed later.
Admittedly, the experiment was shallow. How could I truly know what living on the streets is like? If the temperature turned frigid, I could walk to my truck, drive to my apartment and brew a cup of hot tea. I could always go home. Still, I hoped to glean some insight.
While the congregants of the Lion’s Den trickled past, Diana, a volunteer, was inside setting up for worship. She had seen me through the glass doors and had prayed about what she should do, she said later.
I glanced up to see her kneeling down, close. “Are you warm?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”
I shook my head. “I’m okay,” I said. I felt ashamed. I needed to respond as a street person might, but I could not bring myself to accept her help. All my life I’ve lived values my family instilled in me: hard work and self-reliance. Good old American initiative. I’ve never applied for any form of relief, including unemployment.
Diana must not have believed me. In a few minutes, she returned. “Would you like to come inside? It’s warm.”
I shook my head, keeping my eyes fixed on the ground. The rest of the arrivals paid no attention.
Several minutes later, cupped hands were offering me pound cake, grapes and a cup of coffee. Diana. “Come on in,” she said. Her kindness melted something in me. I felt as if I mattered. I grabbed the food and tottered inside.
Never had I seen such a diverse population in one church. Whites, Indians, a white woman with a black child. Hippie and biker types, yuppies, granolas. A man with a mullet cascading halfway down his back. A rock band blasted tunes, the beat shaking my seat. The congregants stood, praised God and greeted one another. A young woman named Antje, wearing heels and tight-fittin’ jeans, smiled and looked me straight in the eyes without the slightest pity. She said, “There’s food and drink here every Sunday.”
During the break, I slipped out the front door, back into the frozen world.
One hundred and thirty-seven congregants had passed me. Three reached out. Why had Diana helped when others ignored me?
One of my students phoned her. She said she’d prayed about me and “felt like I needed to go talk to him, reach out to him.”
“We’re all human and need to be treated that way,” she said.
It turns out that Antje is Diana’s daughter.
Intersection of Reserve Street & England Boulevard
He didn’t know I was watching him. A scraggly beard covered his face. By the way he kept looking around, he had to know that what he was about to do was illegal.
At 1:25 p.m., he skulked across Lowe’s parking lot and took his place on the concrete median in front of Costco. He slipped something out of his coat and held it to his chest as if it meant something to him. From my truck window, I peered through my binoculars at the cardboard sign: “$$ Please help $$.”
Six cars filed into the turn lane. For the two minutes and 25 seconds it took the light to change, drivers had to decide whether to ignore the man, give him money or tell him to take a shower and get a job. How many persons would give? How much money would the panhandler make?
When the traffic stopped at the red light, the panhandler ambled down the line, holding his sign. At 1:30, a window rolled down and he scurried to the car, snatched the money and poked it in his coat pocket like a squirrel stashing an acorn.
During 10 light changes, 82 cars passed. At 1:53 p.m., the panhandler traveled across the Lowe’s lot, having received four donations in 23 minutes.
I’d been planning what to say when I approached him, but before I could, a woman got out of a battered pickup and greeted him. Then they jumped into the truck and drove off. Keeping a safe distance, I followed them until they pulled into an apartment complex several miles away and disappeared into an elevator.
Disappointed, I thought about the questions that pop up when I encounter a panhandler: Why doesn’t he get a job? Is he mentally ill? Will he blow the money on booze? Should I give money or food? All the questions boiled down to one: Does he really need the money?
For some reason, the answer mattered. Perception of need seemed to be a prime factor in how most individuals respond to the homeless.
How would shoppers react if I were in obvious need while hunkering in front of a grocery store during a cold snap?
Albertson’s, East Broadway
The next week, a storm hit hard. Twenty-two degrees and 30-mile-per-hour winds. On my way to Albertsons, I stopped at the Independent office to check in with my editor, Robert, who had met me only once. No one in the office knew me. I entered the reception area, forgetting I was dressed in my homeless garb. The employee greeting me looked surprised. “Can I help you?” he said.
“I’m here to see the editor, Robert.” I gave my name, and the man returned in a few minutes. The editor was not in.
“When will he return?” I asked.
He didn’t know.
I drove to Albertson’s, parked around the corner and phoned the Independent, ringing through to the calendar desk across from Robert’s office. “Is Robert in?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s here.”
I leaned into the wind and trudged up the street toward Albertson’s. The snow gusted through Hellgate Canyon and peppered through the broken zipper of my old coat. Trying to conserve body heat, I hunched on the concrete next to the soda machine outside the front door. Shoppers leaned into the wind and winced, retracting their necks into their coats like turtles and hurrying inside.
I did not display a sign or ask for help. I simply sat and waited.
Within two minutes, a weathered, dented Nissan Sentra with a handicapped placard hanging from the mirror pulled up. A woman and a teenager stepped out and the teen handed me three dollars. “Go somewhere where it’s warm,” she said.
Over the next hour, 226 shoppers passed, a few doing double takes but not slowing down. A tingling started under the toenails of my big toes and burned its way outward until I could barely feel any of my toes. I wiggled them, which brought only limited relief. Soon, shivers turned to full-blown shaking that I could not stop. A layer of sweat beaded on my skin. I was about to abandon the session and hightail it home when a woman named Isis asked, “Why are you sitting out here in the cold?” Her tone became urgent. “Are you cold?”
“I’m doing okay.”
She leaned down close. “Do you want me to buy you some gloves?”
I drew my hands out of my armpits and showed my wool gloves, the fingers tattered or missing. “I have gloves.”
Isis decided I didn’t want to be bothered and continued inside but could not forget the shivering man.
A homeless man named Whiskey walked by carrying a backpack containing all of his belongings. A metal dinner plate swung from the pack. He seemed curious about me, this homeless stranger. He said, “It’s a little nippy today.”
Later, Whiskey told me that he’d been a truck driver but had been convicted of DUI and lost his license, his job and everything he owned. His fault, he said. But now, he said, he wants to turn his life around and attend UM or the College of Technology’s diesel mechanics program.
On a warmer day, Whiskey would likely have been panhandling at the north end of the footbridge that spans the river and leads to UM’s campus. He would’ve sat there pulling from his bottle when people weren’t looking, responding to handouts with, “God bless. I hope your generosity comes back to you.” He would’ve watched the students hike to campus across that long bridge.
Whiskey hurried off to warm himself in a convenience store bathroom. He was there for only a few minutes before security shooed him away.
Meanwhile, inside of Albertson’s, worried Isis was asking a clerk if the store sells sleeping bags. It does not. As she left the store with a small bag of groceries, she asked again if I was okay. Her face seemed strained and she seemed to not believe me when I replied, “I’m fine.”
When I interviewed Isis by phone, she explained why she was concerned when so many other shoppers were not. Seeing me, she said, “just made my heart sink.” Her voice exuded earnestness. “My father used to tell me to look out the window. He would point to the trees and people and the sun and say, ‘That is you. We are each the drop of water that makes the ocean.’” She quoted Muhammad Ali: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” She said she believes that most people care but they’ve become desensitized to the homeless.
The actions of the next 81 shoppers supported Isis’s theory. A few looked surprised, even alarmed, to see me there, but no one stopped—until Nate, who had seen me on his way into the store to cash his paycheck. “Man, that’s gotta suck,” he thought, “having to be outside and not having anywhere to go.” As he left the store, he held out a $5 bill, the largest gift I was offered during my time on the streets.
Surely he expected me to snatch the money, but I shook my head. “I have a little bit of money.”
He stared at me in disbelief, his expression asking, “Are you sure?”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
And Nate strode away.
When I telephoned Nate a few days later, he explained the reason for his empathy. He said he’d lived out of his car for four or five months once. “So I can appreciate how it is. Most people don’t even care. I always try to help people out if I can.” Helping people, he said, is “the way I was brought up. If you have the means to help the less fortunate, you should.”
Why the five-dollar amount?
“I thought that’d be about enough to get a sandwich and a cup of coffee.”
Three hundred and seven grocery shoppers. Three had helped.
First United Methodist Church
Sunday morning, I plopped down on the icy sidewalk beneath a sign that read “First United Methodist Church, The Heart of Missoula.” Homelessness is a normal sight to this church and a part of its ministry. FUMC hosts Missoula’s version of Project Homeless Connect, a program that gathers social-service resources in one location. The congregation also participates in Family Promise, a nationwide program that houses homeless families in church buildings.
I’d chosen FUMC because it stands across the street from the public library, a regular place for homeless and transient people to warm up, read and check email; but having mistaken the start time of the Sunday worship service, I’d arrived after it began. After half an hour in 22-degree weather, the shivers set in. Finally, an organ began playing and voices joined in a hymn—the closing song. The music reminded me of Christmas.
Just before the doors opened, the sun peeked out and warmed my cheeks. The congregants filed out and past me. Lots of gray coiffures and clean-shaven men. Dress shoes, slacks, and wool coats. Thirty souls. Can they see me?
I scooted into an obvious spot, away from the wall. Still nothing. Now and then, enthusiastic youngsters left church with their parents. Almost all the children noticed me, making no effort to look straight ahead and pass judgment. One little girl smiled, and I didn’t feel invisible anymore.
Eighty-two adults passed me, got in their cars and drove away. The sunshine brightened and a few drops of water sprinkled on my head. “The sun must be melting the snow off the tree limbs,” I thought—but the drips were falling from the metal cross overhead. Then the sun disappeared and the empty street turned gray again.
After 40-plus hours of street sessions, I was tired of being mostly ignored. Time to up the ante.
I emailed my editor, Robert. “Not much happening. Too easy for people to ignore me. I’m trying to think of ways to force people to react to me. Any ideas?”
“I suppose by panhandling,” he said. “The more intrusive you are, the harder it is for them to ignore you. Have you tried any signs? You could sort of experiment with a humorous one. It seems wrong that people might more readily pay for the entertainment quotient, but I bet they do.”
Maybe mine was a marketing problem. I was certainly well-qualified: a bachelor’s degree in business and economics; a nearly complete master’s in writing; years of marketing, promotion and public relations experience. Robert was right. I decided to advertise. I would, in the panhandlers’ words, “fly signs.” Maybe humor would work. Sign #1: “Aliens abducted ex-wife. Need money for ransom—so they will keep her.” Surely some chap would sympathize with that. Sign #2: “My grandma got run over by a reindeer. Need money for hospital bills.”
Higgins Avenue, Downtown
When I arrived at my spot at the intersection of Higgins and Main, two homeless people, Hobo and Heather, were already flying a sign: “Ninja’s killed my family. Need $ for kung fu lessons.” Professionals had trumped me.
I asked them about the best panhandling locations and methods and they gave me the scoop. I asked Heather how much money she makes panhandling.
“About 10 to 15 dollars per day,” she said, “and that takes all day. You have to be patient. This is a full-time job.”
The amount was consistent with the numbers other panhandlers had quoted to me. Even if she were fudging, clearly at least some panhandlers do not make as much money as some people believe.
I asked Hobo, “Which of your signs is the most effective?”
He laughed. “‘Bigfoot kidnapped my sister. Need beef jerky for ransom.’ Once, someone even bought me a package of beef jerky.”
Heather smiled. “People don’t want a sob story. We just try to make them smile.”
She cheerfully greeted about half of the pedestrians. Her friendliness was earnest but it also seemed to circumvent people’s most common reaction, ignoring them. A few smiled, some returned the greeting and some scowled, but most looked straight ahead as if they didn’t see her. I’d spent enough time on the street to recognize that disregard. It’s the hardest part of surviving on the streets—the message that you’re less valuable than other people.
Hobo left to visit his parole officer, and I flew my signs with Heather, who was four months pregnant with Hobo’s baby. She said Hobo and she know they had to stop couch surfing and find a place to live, but they couldn’t afford the deposit and jobs were scarce. She signed up with the Missoula Job Service and wrote a résumé, she said, but she hadn’t landed a job. If work wasn’t available, Hobo and she would have to leave town. But they wanted to stay. Like many of the homeless, they love Missoula, not for its social services but for the beauty of its scenery and the warmth of its people.
I flew my humorous signs with Heather. Not a single person smiled but a few snarled. Many ignored us, acting as if they didn’t see the signs but sneaking quick glances. Mid-afternoon, I moved north on Higgins and in two hours made seven cents, all from one man. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s all I have.”
Late in the afternoon, I plopped down near the Army Navy Economy Store and resorted to old-school sign verbiage: “Please help. $ God bless.” Not 10 minutes later, a woman came out of the store with two little girls. She passed without so much as a glance but her children looked right at me. The woman handed one of the girls a dollar and the girl wheeled around, holding out the money and standing there facing me with the kind of awkward silence that passes between two children who haven’t met.
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
The girl grinned. She raised her hand in the air and gave me a high-five.
Downtown street: 162 pedestrians, two donations. Thoughts of the two little girls stuck in my head. They had looked right at me, the person inside the rags. One day they’ll grow more distrusting and become better judges of character, I thought. I hoped not.
And I wondered whether age makes a difference in how a person responds. How might college students react?
University Center, University of Montana
I set up in front of the University of Montana’s version of a mall, the University Center, one of the busiest locations on campus. Sinking to the sidewalk, I placed an empty paper cup in front of me. I did not fly a sign or ask for money. I simply hung my head and stared at the concrete, peering out over my eyeglasses, under the bill of my hat.
Over the next half hour, 134 pairs of shoes walked by. Hikers, loafers, cowboy boots, tennis shoes, leather boots up to the calf. None of the footwear stopped.
A voice caught me by surprise. “You want a couple of bucks for something to eat?”
The woman wore odd shoes similar to cowboy boots with the shafts cut off at the ankles. Her black socks, embroidered with gray stitching, covered her calves.
A pang of guilt came over me and I almost refused. Who was I to take her money? She probably needed it for her lunch or tuition or her child’s lunch. But my stomach won out. I had not eaten for 18 hours because I wanted the tinge of hunger to drive my trolling for food and money. I had not brought cash or a debit card. I held out my hand.
“Go inside, it’s warm,” she said.
Another hour and another 202 persons, some chatting on phones or texting, some visiting with friends or walking alone. Their reactions felt like a hybrid of the adults and children I had encountered. A higher percentage greeted me but many had already learned the art of ignoring. I thought about the maturation process and wondered if we adults don’t lose something along the way.
Finally, a young woman leaned down so that she could see my eyes. She showed not the slightest fear. “Excuse me,” she said, “would you like something to drink, some hot chocolate or coffee?” She sounded as if she were inviting a friend to dinner.
This time I did not hesitate. “Could I have something to eat?”
“What would you like?”
“Anything,” I said, and she disappeared inside.
After she left, a young man held out two bananas. “Would you like one?”
I snatched it, tearing off the peel, biting off a third and eating without manners. The sweetness exploded across my tongue.
The young woman returned with a piece of carrot cake. Another student gave me a chocolate muffin.
During the two-hour session, 336 students, staff, and faculty passed. Four persons helped. Number 337 did not. Roger Strobel, UC Assistant Director for Building Services, reached for my cup but I grabbed it.
“What’s the cup for?” he asked.
“It’s for food or—”
He frowned. “No. You can’t do that.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Panhandling is against university policy.” He looked disgusted. “If you’re not gone when I come back, I’m going to call the police.”
He trudged down the sidewalk, glancing back to see if I had begun to move. I had not.
Another 45 people passed. A hundred feet away, a man with an old white St. Bernard strode toward me. I could feel the dog’s gaze and knew what it would do. Of eight dogs that had passed me during my sessions, six had stopped to visit.
The dog, its stained teeth showing and tongue lolling, stared eye-to-eye with its big browns. I offered the back of my hand to its nose. It took me in and then, wagging its tail, eased so close that I could smell its breath.
“What your dog’s name?” I asked.
“Tor,” the owner said.
They moved on.
I pulled down my hat and settled in again. Then came the black rubber-soled shoes, navy blue trousers, leather holster and pistol. My heart raced.
“Have you had anything to eat?” the policeman asked.
This line of questioning was not what I had anticipated. “I ate a banana,” I said.
“Someone gave me a muffin. Am I under arrest?”
“Do you have any ID? Do you have a driver’s license?”
I shook my head. I had intentionally left my identification at home.
“Any government ID?”
“What’s your name?”
My pulse quickened and my hands started to shake. I spelled my full name and the officer called it in. I imagined myself in jail, using my phone call to secure a long-term substitute teacher for my class. “Have I done something bad?”
“No. I just like knowing who I’m talking to.” He spoke my name into the radio, probably never suspecting I might be a student and teacher. I felt confident that no warrants for me existed, but still that pang of doubt lingered and my hands began to sweat.
“Have you had anything to drink?”
For a few seconds, I thought he was going to offer me a cup of coffee. My puzzlement registered with him and he rephrased his question: “Have you been drinking?”
All the questions were leading to one result. “You’re making me go?” I asked.
“It’s your choice,” he said. “Panhandling is not illegal but I’ve had a couple of complaints.”
His expression left no doubt that it would be best for everyone if I left. He asked me if I knew about the Poverello Center. “They serve free food,” he said. “Would you like a ride?”
The thought scared of being put in a squad car frightened me. “No.”
He smiled. “You’re not under arrest,” he said. Pointing this way and that, he explained the way to the Pov. Although I didn’t understand his directions, I knew that he was explaining the most direct route away from campus. I slung my duffle bag over my shoulder and hurried away, looking back at the officer, who stood conferring with Strobel.
I hiked across campus, toward my truck, and thought about all of the encounters I’d had, the many people who’d ignored me and the few who were kind or harsh. Mostly, I thought about facial expressions, especially those of the children who seemed to see beyond appearance to my person.
It’s amazing how we treat others based on the frame through which we experience them. A few weeks earlier, I’d attended a reception at UM President Royce Engstrom’s home in honor of Bertha Morton Scholars, a group of top graduate students. I gathered with my fellow Morton Scholars in the library, a room with wood paneling and bookcases. Hors d’oeuvres. Suits, sweater vests and shiny shoes. Hearty handshakes and congratulations from faculty and administrators who seemed certain my peers and I would accomplish something with our lives. How strange that just a few hours before the reception I’d sat ragged on Main Street, devoid of potential.
I shaved, cut my hair and counted the money I’d collected from more than 40 hours on the streets, with 26 hours of that time spent panhandling.
I thought for a while about what to do with the money and then gave it to a guy named Jesse who camps along the Clark Fork near the Reserve Street Bridge. Jesse had to buy a new tent because the zipper on his old one broke.
I left Jesse’s camp and hiked toward Reserve Street. Had my experiences taught me anything about human nature?
No. Reactions had run the normal gamut of human behavior. I did learn something, though. I prefer the company of children and dogs more than adults who cannot see beyond the appearance and status of a person to his worth.
I remembered the emptiness and isolation that had slowly taken hold of me on the streets. What I had really wanted was someone to say hello, to shake my dirty hand or make small talk about the weather. I’d yearned to feel connected. It could be that what some homeless people really want, some, anyway, is a gift bigger than a job, money, shelter, food and drink. They want to know that they’re still part of the human race.
On campus a couple of weeks later, I sat eating a brownie on a bench within sight of my panhandling location. A little girl, maybe six years old, strolled by with her mother, grinned and waved her fingers. Later, on my way to class, I spotted a large white dog in the distance. Tor. I remembered his brittle hair and his labored gait, signs of a dog not long in this world, and a feeling of fondness came over me.
Tor padded down the sidewalk with his owner, stopping to greet a young woman. She reached out her hand and patted Tor on the head, and the old dog wagged its tail.
Story Behind the Story...
This was the lead, above-the-fold story in the newspaper's Christmas edition. In preparation, for almost a year I didn't cut my hair. Didn't shave for weeks. Bathed irregularly. I'm sure my "normal" friends, who knew nothing about my assignment, thought I was unraveling. For months during the winter I spent some or all of my days living on the streets. I went home each night. There's so much I could tell you for which there is not enough room, but suffice it to say that the reporting and writing changed my life. I am comfortable with homeless people. I am less likely to give to panhandlers.