From Winnie Lohof with PATH at Western Montana Mental Health Center

The name of the neighbor in this story has been changed for confidentiality. 

Jack* was having a bad few weeks. He had been experiencing houselessness for almost five years but these past few weeks were simply untenable. After no longer being able to stay with family due to safety concerns, Jack began camping off a trail near the river. Hidden by nature and with spring slowly arriving, Jack was beginning to feel safe for the first time in a long time.

Then the bear came.

Jack had gone into town to shower and to do laundry. It was a hard trek from where he was living into town when he hadn’t eaten yet and was carrying a few pounds of clothing on his back. It was even harder at the end of the day. Hoping to crawl into his tent and sleep, Jack came back to his campsite completely destroyed. The stuffing from his sleeping bag was strewn like snow. The tent was shredded. It was nighttime and there was no way Jack could reach anyone to get something to keep him warm that night.

And so he walked.

The next few weeks were filled with sleeping bags getting stolen, sleeping bags being ruined, sleeping bags that just weren’t warm enough despite the summer heat. It was a painful cycle of destruction and Jack had had enough. He was done. It was then that Jack finally found a little spot, near the river again, that was out of the way and that finally, somehow, felt safe.

Then Jack slipped.

It wasn’t a big slip. It was the kind of slip that happens when you slide on wet river rock and catch yourself before you go face first into the great unknown that is the Clark Fork River. But this little slip caused a small nick on Jack’s pinky finger. This little slip was the game changer.

That night, Jack’s finger began to turn red, then purple, and then black. He started sweating and hallucinating and had no thought in his mind except, “I need to get out of here now.” In an almost fugue state, Jack called 911.

Jack was extracted from his camping spot alongside the river and rushed to the hospital. He stayed there for a week while doctors rushed about trying to see if there would be any chance that the finger could be saved. In the end, the finger and Jack had to, quite unceremoniously, part ways for good.

Three weeks after this incident, Jack was housed. You see, despite the bear, Murphy’s law taking out its anger on sleeping bags, and absconding with a finger, Jack still arrived, on time, to every single appointment with his housing navigator. He called property management companies and filled out applications. He took online classes on how to be a better renter. He went to therapy and took his medications. Jack did everything right and everything was still going wrong.

Now this story is not only to applaud the hard work and perseverance of someone who gave it their all, no matter what. This story is to tell you, dear reader, that the things Jack went through are not unusual for many people experiencing houselessness in Montana, or anywhere in the world.

It is just their life. 

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