The Many Faces of Homelessness - Four Portraits

Missoula's homeless women may not be who you think

Put aside your preconceptions of who and what homeless people look like. Unless you've curled up under a bridge yourself, or know someone who has, your notion is likely to be off the mark.

The homeless are as diverse as the rest of us. Some are in the throes of chemical addiction or suffer from mental illness; others are just fed up with what they see as the mainstream of American life. But many of Missoula's homeless, including some of the women we spoke to for this story, can hardly understand how their lives took such unexpected turns. They are eager to get off the street and back to their former careers and lifestyles, but find the cards increasingly stacked against them.

"I've worked steady all my life," says Bambi Wounded Eye, a former certified nursing assistant who has been homeless for almost a year. "I never thought I'd be here."

Being homeless presents daily challenges: where to sleep, what to eat, how to be safe. But being a homeless woman can be significantly more difficult and a whole lot riskier. Rape and abuse are commonplace. Social services created to help can carry their own stigmas and can be viewed as unappealing. Tipi Lynn, who has been homeless for 14 years, says as much when she states defiantly, "I'm not a mission tramp."

But others, like Donna Woods, have appreciated the social programs that are provided for people without homes. "When you can't afford nothin', the Pov[erello Center] is a good place to get food and sleep," she says.

While Missoula provides numerous social services to help homeless people re-establish themselves, resources remain lean, and the people who need help must be willing to work hard.

Donna is one of the success stories. "Go see the social workers," she says. "They really can help."

"I never thought I'd ever be here.

I used to think I was above living at the Pov," says Bambi Wounded Eye. "My life just spiraled downward."

Bambi had worked as a certified nursing assistant since the late '80s, but a series of lay-offs and cutbacks left her without work or savings. After spending almost a year with relatives and on the street, she went to the Poverello Center, where she has lived for three months.

Now, six months pregnant, Bambi is concerned about supporting her developing twins.

"I pray to God I can afford myself and my babies," she says. "I just wanna work. Being pregnant doesn't stop me from working."

But Bambi hasn't worked in two weeks, claiming she was fired from her last job for being pregnant. Now the Missoula job market is not giving her many options.

"I've worked steady all my life," she says. "I want my old life back, my house and my nursing job."

Being pregnant and living at the Poverello Center makes finding work even more difficult.

"I'm scared I'm always gonna be like this, that I'm never gonna get out of this hole."

"I sleep on a piece of cardboard

down there, under the bridge," says Tipi Lynn, pointing to her current home. "And its tough, ya know, 'cause I'm a single woman. Tramps are always trying to take me home and fuck me. But I'm packin'; not every woman out here is packin'."

Two weeks ago, Lynn lived in a semi-permanent camp along the Kim Williams Trail, but closures due to fire danger have moved dozens of people out of their camps and onto the streets. "Two-thirds [of homeless people] have a reason for being on the streets. Mine's cancer. The other third are crazy." In 1985, Lynn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three years to live.

"At that point, I figured I'd hit the street, live it up and party," she says. "Now I'm an alcoholic, through and through."

Drinking about a 12-pack every day, Lynn says that she prefers not to get completely intoxicated because it's too dangerous.

"If you get too wasted, you can't protect yourself, but you gotta drink enough to forget."

For Lynn, there's a lot to forget.

"I've been stabbed, beaten, shot, raped and thrown off a cliff. Yeah it's tough out here, but I figure when it's your time to go, you go."

"I'm homeless, but I'm not a homeless person," says Kimberly Gharst Christ. "I'm a career woman."

Indeed, for 12 years, Kimberly worked as a union paper-maker for Stone Container's largest bleach pulp paper facility in Panama City, Fla. When she transferred to the Missoula facility in 1994, she says, she bought a six-figure, two-story log home in Alberton.

"As a paper maker, I was exposed to a OSHA's maximum dose of chlorine every day in the work place. So the train derailment that spilled 72 tons of chlorine a mile and a half from my house hit me especially hard. Neurologists have called me a 'safety hazard' because of the resulting overload of toxins in my fatty tissue."

Kimberly experienced acute symptoms for a week following Montana Rail Link's 1996 chlorine spill, including migraines, nausea and fever. Today the problems persist, and she says they prevent her from working most jobs.

"I can't be a waitress, because the bleach makes me light-headed and nauseous. I can't work in an office because of the perfume and hair spray. I'm a paper-maker, but I'm too sick to do it anymore. There's too many chemicals."

Kimberly went from owning a home in Alberton and providing for her two children to sleeping on the street in less than a year. Both of her children now live in foster homes in Kalispell.

"I've lost my job, I've lost my children, I've lost my home. My goal now is just to get my family back and have a house again."

But Kimberly also responds to a higher calling. Calling herself a "Jesus freak" and a spokesperson for the hemp fiber industry, she speaks another gospel.

"As a former paper-maker, I learned that using trees to make paper is very inefficient. Hemp is much more practical and requires no toxic chemicals. I now have changed my life to be the 'petition girl' for the hemp fiber movement."

But for now, Kimberly is trying to get her kids back and get back on her feet. "It's weird," she says. "Nobody thinks that they'll ever have to find a place to sleep in a park until it happens."

"Without social workers, I'd probably be on the street,"

says Donna Woods, "and Jay might be dead." Jay, Donna's 18-month-old son, is still recovering from a bout with pneumonia. "We were out there in winter, and I couldn't live with my sister in the mountains anymore."

So Donna was in and out of the Poverello Center for two and a half months, but found the dorm-style living and awkward social dynamics too challenging. "There's too many men. I felt uncomfortable."

Donna was eligible for placement in the Joseph Residence, a transitional housing branch of the Poverello Center. The center houses families and has room for up to 25 residents. She took the opportunity right away, and is glad she did. She has been there for almost four months.

With assistance from the center and the Missoula Housing Authority's Shelter + Work Program, Donna says she has learned valuable life skills; she began her apartment search on Monday. "I appreciate it here, but I'm ready to have my own place, my own space," she says.

Donna's next step is to find employment, but caring for Jay is still her main goal. "I'll be looking for a job soon, but Jay comes first," she says. "He is the light of my life."

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