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The death of a Hamilton man spurred efforts to open a winter shelter in the Bitterroot Valley

Stefani Jackson runs a nonprofit in Hamilton, MT called Loads of Dignity. She provides quarters, laundry supplies, showers and other basic services to people.
Payton Petersen
University of Montana School of Journalism
Stefani Jackson runs a nonprofit in Hamilton, MT called Loads of Dignity. She provides quarters, laundry supplies, showers and other basic services to people.

In the Bitterroot Valley, as in most of Montana, there’s a housing crisis and increasing need for shelter beds. A recent survey found over 100 people without homes. That’s nearly three times the number of unsheltered people in the region a decade ago. Until recently, there was no winter shelter in the valley, but the death of one man led to change.

Jack, as he was known around town in Hamilton, died last November.

“He thought he could make it to Missoula walking, since there was no warming center in Hamilton,” Gary Locke says.

Locke used to work as a social worker at the local Salvation Army. Now he owns a ranch, and in his spare time, he tries to find ways to help what he calls the hidden homeless in the valley. Locke has opened family shelters in the past, but he didn’t have a lot of success. Then Jack died.

Gary Locke
Gary Locke

“So, yeah. That was a precipitant factor for being able to generate enough community interest and set up the warming center, to make it happen.”

Jack was someone familiar. He rode his three-wheeled bike around Hamilton. People thought that they knew him and when they found out he died, it mattered.

“Jack was the first one for quite a long time and brought everybody's attention to the fact that yes, we do have homeless folks in the Bitterroot, ladies and gentlemen,” Locke says.

People paid attention not just because Jack was there and then he wasn’t. They paid attention to the way he died — from complications of being out in the cold.

“There was a couple from Washington that saw him laying on the side of the road, so they took him in to the hospital,” Stefani Jackson says.

Jackson is the one Jack called after he was able to ask the nursing staff for a phone.

“He went into surgery and then the nurse called me and asked if I was family or if I knew him, and I knew right then that something had happened.”

Like Locke, Jackson has been working on her own to help people in need in Hamilton. She has a nonprofit there called Loads of Dignity. She provides quarters, laundry supplies, showers and other basic services to people. Jack was one of her regulars who never missed a laundry appointment until the week of his death.

“I got a lot of people saying how sorry they are for my loss. And I almost feel guilty because it's like, I don't know, I'm not family, but I guess according to him, I am family. So, I loved him like family, but I didn't know it was mutual.”

Here’s Gary Locke again.

“It’s hard that had to be the case, but we haven't let his death go in vain, we've been able to save a number of people as a result.”

About a month after Jack’s death, Locke opened the Bitterroot Family Shelter. It provides 20 cots to sleep on, including private rooms with clean sleeping bags and pillows. Since opening in December, Locke says it’s served more than 40 people. It’s been a safe place to stay where one hadn’t existed before. In one season — from December to the end of March this year, the shelter provided emergency housing to those in need on a consistent basis. And some of them were families. That matters to Locke, who has made it a priority to house mothers and their children since he opened his first shelter in 2010.

“The rule of thumb is that if there’s children involved, we take care of them. We don’t even ask questions.”

With a growing homeless population, Locke saw a greater need for a new shelter in the Bitterroot. He partnered with the New Hope Southern Baptist Church in Hamilton to create a space that serves as a shelter.

Locke said that in the first 40 nights that the Bitterroot Family Shelter was open, they averaged around four people a night.

“That’s one person per night worth of shelter.”

The shelter is located on Sleeping Child Road in Hamilton. There are several sleeping spaces full with cots, and there is also a common living area with options for cooking.

Gina Noirot
Payton Petersen
University of Montana School of Journalism
Gina Noirot

“So this is the kitchen area and it’s also the entrance at the moment, this is the general population room,” Gina Noirot says. “We have tables set up here on this one wall with all the donations.”

Noriot is the only full-time volunteer who stays at the shelter. She’s slept there in an office on a cot every night since it opened.

“This is my personal space, ‘cause I’m 'tag I’m it.' I’m here what feels like 24/7, but I’m here every day,” she says.

By the time the warming center closed for the season in April she had stayed there almost 80 days.

“I signed up to volunteer overnight, and nobody else will do it, so I’m it. Everybody thinks I’m crazy. It’s like ‘you could be like ADD’s when you’re done,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah but it’s okay, because it’s to help people.’”

This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.

Reporting by the University of Montana School of Journalism students was supported by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation.

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