I really hope it’s almost 6am. I’m staying the night at the Warming Center, and all I can think about is the comfort of my own bed. This shelter is certainly warm, and a welcome alternative to the Bozeman winter, but it is much harder to get through the night than I ever anticipated. I’m on the top bunk sleeping on something more similar to a canoe than a mattress. The jarring snores of the ten other men in this room seem to dictate the narrative of my intermittent dreams and sleepless thoughts. My watch reads 3 am. I feel dirty, and I feel guilty about feeling dirty. The room is dark but slightly moonlit. I look around and see a world that is beyond my understanding. As I lay my head back it occurs to me that I cannot fathom staying here even one more night. Helplessness sets in. I don’t want these people to have to stay here; I don’t want them to live like this. But what can I do?
Since September I have been working to construct a community resource guide for my public health internship with Greater Gallatin United Way and the Early Childhood Community Council. On an early January afternoon I set off to personally sample some of the resources I have been researching and to attempt to understand the meaning of the call of the organization I work for: to “Live United.”
My transportation for the night was the Streamline Bus service, the free public transport system in the Gallatin area. Carrying a route map and schedule undoubtedly made our sprawled community more compact and accessible. The Open-Arms drop in Center on the Gallatin Mental Health campus kept me warm until I knew I could have a free meal across town at the Community Café.
The Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) chose a superbly central location just north of Main and 7th to establish a free, restaurant style dining service that is available 365 days a year from 5-7 pm. On my brief walk up 7th from the bus stop I noticed an elderly woman struggling to push the 6 inch wheels of her walker through 8 inches of snow. “Beth” was a homeless woman who appreciated my help and subsequently offered me a cigarette as we waited outside the building for 5 o’clock to come. This sweet and feisty woman immediately welcomed me into an unexpected community. She introduced me to several others and pledged to “show me the ropes” at the Warming Center where many of us planned to spend the night.
Served by volunteers, Beth and I enjoyed our meal together. One volunteer made a particularly compassionate impact on my night. She immediately noticed my withdrawn demeanor and, kindly and gently began to investigate my reasons for being there. She seemed to genuinely care for me and want to comfort me - a complete stranger whose circumstances she did not know. It impressed me that this woman would, without hesitation, do the same for all who entered this aptly named Community Café.
Next I made for the Warming Center. Offering bathrooms, separate spaces for men and women, and plenty of bunks, this shelter can accommodate perhaps more than twice the number of guests that stayed the night of January 11th. Despite the ample space and warmth, one night at the Warming Center proved to be an extraordinarily taxing and revealing experience. While I sat off to the side I frequently found myself observing and wondering, as we often do when we see a homeless person on the street, “How could that person have gotten to such a desperate place?” One man was jotting notes while speaking on his cell phone. A few others watched a movie or read while yet a few I had not met were on their computers.
Clearly, none of my established stereotypes fit. An older, avuncular gentleman, “Paul”, crushed me in three straight matches of chess. “Bad move…check. Shouldn’t have done that! Check mate.” And in another match, “This is an old Bobby Fischer move, freed up my Rooks. You’re a quick learner young fella, but not quick enough! Check!”
My journal from that night reads: “On a night when my time spent outdoors has been time spent hopping around just to keep sensation in my toes, I feel proud to live in a community that has decided to keep Paul warm through the night.” What’s more, upon arrival at the Warming Center the registration form requires guests to fill in the reason for their stay and the other local services they have utilized. This was perhaps what impressed me most – a clear first step in connecting people with helpful resources and proof that the creation of this shelter was not out of pity, but out of a sincere respect for the value of each individual.
When I set off to construct this community resource guide I felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of the endeavor. However, as I read about and paid visits to various agencies and programs throughout Gallatin Valley I grew increasingly amazed at how many people care deeply about the wellbeing of this community. Is this apparent abundance of goodwill unique to Gallatin Valley? I have not seen enough other communities to know. But what my young eyes have seen clearly is an army of workers committing their careers or their free time to unite this community and make it better for us all.
Perhaps the only example necessary to cite is that the Community Café is operated entirely by volunteers coordinated by the HRDC. If the volunteers stop coming, the food will stop being served. But the volunteers have never stopped coming. In fact, currently the volunteer slots are booked through the next three months.
“We built that fence,” my brothers and I like to say when driving on our ranch outside Billings. Yet we all recognize that someone placed the fence post driver in our hands. Someone taught us how to string out and tighten the wire. I am united with my father and grandfather forever in that way – in a community of family. Now, on the cusp of being a product of a Montana State University education, I take pause to consider the community that made it possible. Perhaps I will never be able to define that community, but I can recognize it. I can pursue a life that reflects my profound appreciation for the opportunities I have been given. I can live to strengthen the many communities that have strengthened me.
I can LIVE UNITED.