The invisible man 

A writer goes homeless to see who cares

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"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.

click to enlarge Panhandling at the corner of Broadway and Higgins Avenue - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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 not to 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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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?"

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