Photos and story by Nikki Carlson
Lee Snell, also known as “Stagger Lee,” walks the streets in his damp slip-on shoes, grimy yellow gloves, and layers of vests, coats and sweaters. The stench of alcohol lingers on his breath as he digs through garbage bins for food, drinks, clothes and other unwanted treasures.
Snell, 50, understands the impression others may have when they see him.
“They'd say, ‘He's nothing but a drunk or a tramp,'” he said. “It's hard because when they see us walking and living on the streets like this, they don't trust us.”
For the past five years, Snell has bounced from town to town along the Hi-Line. Right now he sleeps in a pickup truck to keep warm during the night. He lives day by day hawking items he's found in the Dumpsters. Instead of using the money he makes or is given to find a warm place to stay, he buys alcohol to “keep warm,” he says.
“When you're out on the street, you get hooked and you pretty well walk the walk that you choose. It's kind of hard to change when you live out in the cold like this,” he said. “Somewhere down the line it falls apart. Right now I'm at a crossroads because I've got to choose whether or not I want to live this way all of the time.”
Snell is one of the homeless people sleeping and living on the streets of Havre because they have nowhere else to go. Enough homeless people either call Havre home or travel through the town to warrant providing a homeless shelter, advocates for the needy say.
Salvation Army social service director Trina Crawford said the Salvation Army will provides vouchers to stay for a night or two at a local motel to give the homeless a night between warm sheets. Crawford said the price for a night's stay can run up to $53.
“It's a very temporary basis,” she said. “That generally seems to be enough for them to make it through the next day.”
The Rev. Charlie Moody of Foursquare Gospel Church said a portion of offerings and tithes at local churches are used by the Greater Havre Area Ministerial Association to aide the homeless. The money is passed on to the Salvation Army and St. Jude's Catholic Church.
“We have helped quite a bit. It has not been uncommon in the past when the Salvation Army has been maxed out,” Moody said. “There is a need, especially during the winter months.”
Moody said the money can be used to pay for a night's stay in a motel room and provide a meal or two. Moody added that local churches have been working together in order for them not be scammed by someone going to different churches asking for money.
“We're sharpening how to administer the finances of the benevolent fund,” he said.
Crawford said the Salvation Army will drive the homeless to the Great Falls rescue mission if they need help for more than a few days. She said the couple of days in a motel is only meant to give the homeless a chance to pick up the pieces of their lives. “Our mission is to help them, but we don't just hand money out,” she said.
Lt. Russ Ostwalt has worked at the Havre Police Department for 18 years. Occasionally he sees homeless people passing through Havre. However, the majority of those who do wander the streets have relatives or friends they can stay with, he said.
“We're worried about their health. There's a problem in the winter when the elements can harm the people,” he said.
Usually he'll see people sleeping underneath the Milk River bridge, in alleys or in the Pepin Park culverts. Ostwalt said officers will ask the person if they're alright and drive them to the home of a friend or relative.
“We try to get them out of the elements,” he said. “We check on them to make sure they're OK.”
If the person is homeless and doesn't have anyone to stay with, then an officer will seek help from local churches or the Salvation Army.
A problem officers run into is during the early hours of the morning when those facilities are closed. Then an officer will keep the person in the squad car during their shift to keep them warm.
“They're with the officers from beginning to end,” Ostwalt said.
If an officer is dispatched to a call, they'll allow the person to stay in the police station lobby.
“The officer will go to the call and then deal with that person afterwards,” Ostwalt said.
Ostwalt said the Police Department can't house people for the night unless the person has committed a criminal offense, such as trespassing.
Ostwalt supports the idea of a shelter where officers could drop a homeless person off.
Crawford said the number of people who need a place to stay increases during the winter months. However, she doesn't know if Havre can support a homeless mission.
“That's why we have to find a solution for them,” she said. “I think we can brainstorm.”
Sister Judith Maender of St. Jude's Catholic Church has provided social outreach services for 15 years. Maender is in charge of the food pantry and clothing drives in the parish center. She said the number of homeless people in Havre has increased in her time here.
“There's been a big increase in poverty because of several government cuts,” she said.
The Greater Havre Ministerial Association is trying to find a solution.
Association president Tim Zerger, pastor of Community Alliance Church, said the association wants to purchase the Salvation Army church, which has been for sale since the end of August, to provide one to two nights' stay for the homeless.
“That's something that we need to look into,” Zerger said. “The question is what the Salvation Army might do in terms of selling it to us.”
The ministerial association is composed of 18 member churches in Havre. Zerger said the idea is very preliminary. The first hurdle is to obtain the building - “The big step for us since we've never done anything like this before,” he said.
“I hope that does work out for those that are stranded here for one reason or another or people just really down on their fortune,” Moody added. “This is a sign of the times.”
The Rev. Vern Brown of Hi-Line Christian Church, now called the Christian Life Center, and his wife, Mary, are also working on providing a rescue mission for the homeless.
Maender supports the idea.
“That sounds just wonderful and that is really needed here,” she said. “We had one fella who has been here for at least three weeks. He's from New Mexico and stays by the river. I don't know how he makes it. I really don't. But he's made it this far in this really fearful weather.”
Snell said he used to be a pastor at a church. After his wife died of cirrhosis due to alcoholism, his life fell apart, he said. Snell is aware that by drinking he too is putting his health at risk. He said the alcohol numbs him from the pain in his life and the bitter cold that cracks his skin.
“Everything went to hell,” he said. “That's why I drink, because it kind of calms me down and kind of mellows me out.”
Snell said he could stay with someone he knows in town, but he said he doesn't trust that person, as he pointed to a bruise over his right eyelid.
When the weather is warmer, Snell will “sleep anywhere.” That could include trespassing on private property.
Snell and his friend “Wild Bill” dug through the garbage bins on an alley between First and Second streets after lunch on Friday at the Feed My Sheep Community Soup Kitchen.
Wild Bill, 62, came to Havre from Seattle about five months ago when his 5-year-old grandson died of a brain tumor, he said. His oldest daughter was also diagnosed as being terminally ill and died of kidney failure a week later, he said.
Wild Bill said that he's going to return to his wife of 33 years and two grandchildren in Seattle this spring.
“I came out here because my daughter was sick,” he said as his eyes welled with tears. “I didn't have enough money to bring my wife and two grandkids.”
Wild Bill stays in a relative's basement in Havre. He digs through garbage bins with Snell to keep busy, he said.
“This is more or less something to do,” he said.
Finding a job is tough for someone who has lived on the streets for awhile. Snell said his appearance and lifestyle overshadow his character.
“If I had a job I would straighten up. People will say, ‘You can't trust them. The first day they'll probably take off,'” he said. “If I had a job, I would sober up.”
Marvin Spotted Bird, 40, took off his Native Pride baseball cap and bowed his head at the soup kitchen during the blessing on Dec. 9. Spotted Bird stays in his sister's house in Havre. He said he's been in jail a few times. He was 18 when he was locked up for the first time for stealing beer from a beer distributor, he said.
“I've had a few DUIs too,” he said.
Spotted Bird survives by digging through garbage looking for cans to take to the recycling center or items to panhandle. He seeks shelter next to fences, buildings or anywhere he can.
“The streets are not so dangerous. Once in awhile there will be a fight, but we all mind our own business,” he said. “Sometimes it's kind of hard. You have to look out for number one.”
“You've got to walk the walk and talk the talk, and hang in there. Bundle up the best you can to stay warm, and keep yourself happy,” Snell added. “Because as long as you keep yourself happy, people will respect you.”
Snell can't help but see light at the end of the tunnel.
“I'm glad I'm in a free country. I'm glad that we can do what we do ... we can (look for cans) ... lay our heads anywhere we want because this is our Mother Earth,” he said. “We came from the dust and we'll go back to the dust.”