Some days it’s okay to sacrifice the freedom of the open road for a warm meal or a touch of mercy. Like Thanksgiving. Last Thursday, frost coated the branches of the elms and walnuts outside of Missoula’s Poverello Center as the temperature hovered near freezing. Inside, staff and volunteers cooked and served turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, pumpkin pie and a green salad for 400 people. Four hundred people who left behind the highway, jail, or an uncaring family for a hot meal and a few moments of rest.
Residents Ruth, John, Chuck and Larry drink coffee at 6:30 a.m. while staff and volunteers at the Pov snap on latex gloves, crank open industrial-sized cans of fruit cocktail and sweet potatoes, and roll blue milk crates into the kitchen.
“Watch out for that bag behind you, brother.”
In 12 years, this is Larry’s first Thanksgiving “not being locked up.” He was head cook in prison, and was accustomed to turkey without bones, a “turkey roll this long”—his hands move apart about two piano octaves—“that big around, and you slice it.” He left Deer Lodge in September and is still easing himself into freedom. “At night, I can get up, walk out the door, get a Coke,” he says. “I go for a walk around the block.” He’s trying to find work, but potential employers who call and learn he’s at the Pov just hang up, he says.
To John, the Pov offers less freedom. “Being here is like being in jail in a way,” he says. The schedule is set, and the rules are beyond his control. “It’s our choice to live here,” he acknowledges, “but if we don’t stay here, where do we go?” He answers his own question: “It’s probably 28 degrees outside…there’d be a lot of dead people in the street.”
He finds hope here, he says, but not a holiday. “To me, today is just another day. Not a holiday, nothing special.”
Clearly, though, it isn’t just another day for the Pov. The walls are covered with watercolor paintings of turkeys whose tails look aflame. There are flowers and candlesticks on the table. Chuck, who spent last Thanksgiving in an apartment by himself, reaches across the table to an arrangement of carnations. He touches them. “Is that real?”
Mike Lamb, head chef at the Pov, has a kitchen crowded with inquisitive volunteers—Where’s the bread room? What’d you do with the hand truck?
“I don’t usually have this many people here,” he says. “I usually have one or two. It’d be nice to spread this out throughout the year.”
“Got four kids cleaning the basement,” says a staff member. Then he snickers: “The Harvard kid.”
While volunteers mop floors and scrub pots and spoon potatoes, the road weary rest.
Ruth hitchhiked from Yuba City to San Francisco at the age of 12—“That started my bad girl career”—did time for burglary and forgery, and “finally” got off of parole in 2001. She’s been on the road with her white cat, Angel, since. “I have avoided shelters almost like the plague,” she says. Somewhere around Butte, though, she got tired. She has been at the shelter for about a week. What people at the Pov need, she says, is a warm place to sleep, and mercy. She converted to Catholicism in 2000, and her favorite saint is Faustina Kowalska. “She gave us the devotion of divine mercy,” Ruth says. “God has all this mercy that we reject every day.”
Like many Pov residents, Ruth has an insatiable appetite for the road. As soon as she gets a working car and enough rest, she’ll hit the highways again.
“The highway never ends,” she says. “Who knows what you’ll see around the next corner.”
At 7:30 a.m., everyone is kicked out for three hours. By 11:25 a.m. a line has formed at the back door. A woman with white hair, a cane and no gloves or hat checks her watch. Only three or four more minutes, she says.
A few minutes later, a man throws open the door: “Bring ’em on.”
Over a tray of turkey and fixings, Nick says that he, too, lived a life on the road. Now, he’s ready for a second chance. “I was street raised,” he says. “I danced. I paid the fiddler. Now let me live.” The staff at the Pov, he says, is getting him back on his feet. They helped him and a couple of friends find an apartment and some new eyeglasses, too.
“If you’re an Indian, they give [glasses] to you free,” says a man who calls himself God.
“I’m a German and I got them,” answers Nick, pulling a case out of his pocket.
In the dining room, the talk is of finding hope, or losing it; the free fleece gloves at the Salvation Army; children given up for adoption; the mountains around Missoula; families that offer a paid night in a hotel but no companionship.
The room is warm. The supportive community and holiday season generosity will keep the Poverello’s financial concerns at bay for now. But “there’s never a point as a non-profit where you can sit back and be comfortable,” says Lori Jorgensen, client services coordinator.
A man in a black leather ball cap and jacket walks to the front door.
“This is 535 Ryman? I’m looking for a place to stay for the night,” says Duane Dannewitz.
“Lucky you, you’re here on Thanksgiving day, man,” answers Lamb. Dannewitz smiles. “Why is that?”