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've 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 the 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.