Karl Puckett Great Falls Tribune
Published 10:17 AM EST Feb 14, 2019
Ken Smith spent more than 20 years riding the rails, “hoboing around” as he calls it, hopping on trains and getting off where they stopped, holding a sign asking for money during the day and returning “home” at night to a camp in a field or under a bridge.
“I decided once I started losing body parts it was time to give it up,” Smith said one day earlier this week.
In mid-January, while living in a tent behind Walmart in Great Falls, Smith suffered frostbite.
At Benefis Health System, a portion of his big toe under the nail and the tips of the next two toes were amputated.
That experience finally prompted the California native to come in from the cold for good in frigid Montana.
For the first time since 1996, Smith now has a home, a studio apartment furnished for now with one piece of furniture, a lawn chair that Smith’s angular frame overwhelmed as he talked about 23 years of living on the streets, traveling the country, friends who still are homeless and the community’s view of the homeless.
“I’ve finally got one, and hope I don’t lose it,” he said of his new home.
A month ago, Smith, 57, was homeless and living outside.
When he reached his breaking point — a friend called an ambulance to transport him to Benefis after his toes froze — a new initiative to end homelessness in the city was in place to help him move indoors.
It’s called the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a national program that was launched locally in 2016.
The effort was later broadened in Great Falls to include the entire homeless population in the city, including those who are not veterans, such as Smith.
MORE: Helena homeless shelter population triples amid cold temps
“They are small barriers if you are housed or have income,” Jennifer Lehman, St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless outreach coordinator, said of obstacles that prevent some people from escaping homelessness. “They are impossible barriers if you are homeless because you are completely disconnected with the general population.”
St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic charity organization that regularly visits eight of the established homeless camps in Great Falls, providing food and supplies and checking on the occupants “to make sure people are living,” but there’s not enough resources to visit them all, Lehman said.
St. Vincent teamed with Opportunities Inc., a community action agency providing resources including housing assistance to low-income residents, to find Smith the apartment at Rainbow House Apartments. Lehman knew Smith through her visits to the camps, and he was one of many who filled out surveys measuring crises levels.
“I think a lot of people probably couldn’t survive as long as he has,” she says of Smith, who was homeless in several cities for parts of three decades.
Through the homelessness initiative, several agencies, including St. Vincent de Paul, United Way, Opportunities Inc., YWCA Mercy Home, Volunteers of America, Family Promise and the Great Falls Rescue Mission have stepped up coordination, assessing each homeless person, determining needs and connecting them to necessary services to find housing.
Help from somebody who is not homeless is critical for those who need housing, Lehman said.
One day earlier this week, Smith, sitting in his lawn chair in his sparsely furnished apartment, was in good humor.
“I’ve got all 10 fingers and all — well 9 ½ toes,” said Smith, chuckling, at his good fortune.
He’s grateful, he says, for the basics, such as a nice warm room, and the generosity he received from Opportunities Inc. and St. Vincent de Paul employees who he says went out on a limb to help him escape his precarious situation. He doesn’t want to let them down.
“I have no intentions of moving,” he says.
The foot he froze still is protected in a black boot while his tender toes heal.
Today, for Smith, outside is a place to get fresh air, not a place to live.
“I don’t have to worry about staying out there all night long when it gets 25 below zero,” he said.
One wall in his new apartment is decorated with a giant American flag. Another, a poster featuring a bearded Duck Dynasty character who resembles Smith, who also sports a bushy beard.
A large-screen TV sits in the corner. Smith says he’s keeping up on the news. A blanket and pillow are laid out in the corner. Smith still is waiting on furniture and a bed, but he’s not complaining although he still thinks about his friends who remain homeless.
“It’s tough on them, especially with this weather being the way it is,” he says.
Barbara Snider didn’t make it through the winter.
She was found dead in her blankets in a make-shift camp underneath the Warden Bridge on Jan. 5.
Over the past two weeks, high temperatures often failed to climb above zero, but it’s not clear whether Snider’s death was weather related. An autopsy was ordered to determine the cause of her death and results are pending.
Smith’s homeless journey began in 1996.
“I lost my house in Redding (Calif.) and me and my wife decided to go out on the rails and see the United States,” Smith said.
Smith was born in southern California’s Lynwood.
“It was really rather pleasant,” he said of growing up.
He played football and baseball and wrestled.
After high school, he worked for a railroad for seven years, and later a lumber mill.
He met his wife, Stephanie, in the Bay area and they moved to northern California’s Redding before hitting the rails.
“I’ve been everywhere except for the East Coast,” Smith said of his train travels.
He would stay in a city for a few days or a few weeks before moving on, jumping into a rail car when it was stopped or moving slowly.
MORE: Funds approved for new homeless, domestic violence shelter
El Paso, Texas. Oakland and San Francisco. Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. Phoenix. Kansas City. That’s just a sampling of the cities Smith spent time in.
“I don’t know how to say this,” Smith says when asked to explain. “I guess you have to have a heart for it or the mentality. It’s not for everybody, I know that.”
Seeing different states was an adventure.
“At first it was just something to do because I was homeless,” Smith said. “Then after two years, it became a way of living.”
He tried to go to warm locations in the winter and cooler locations in the summer.
Smith has no regrets.
But he doesn’t recommend a way of life that, far from being glamorous, was dangerous and kept him estranged from his family. He drank daily.
“You are always watching,” said Smith of the dangers, adding he learned to sleep “with one eye open.”
He camped with people he knew. “We all had each other’s backs,” he said.
His family didn’t understand.
A mother and sister still live in southern California. Another sister lives in Idaho. A brother, he thinks, lives in northern California but he’s not sure because they have not been in touch for years. He lost contact with family in about 2006.
“At that point I really didn’t care,” Smith said. “I started drinking a lot.
“It kept clicking in my mind, ‘Nobody cares about you, nobody cares about you,’” he added.
He split ways with his wife in Arizona in 2008. She died in 2016.
MORE: United Way, partners works to aid homeless in Great Falls
He visited Great Falls for the first time in 2015 and traveled between the city, where his partner, Tracy, had a sister, and northern Montana’s Havre. He returned to Great Falls in 2016 and again in 2017 when he decided to stay.
Even before Smith froze his toes, the unauthorized rail travel and life on the streets had begun to take its toll.
First, he fell off freight train injuring himself.
And in 2016, his lungs collapsed after a bout with pneumonia, and he spent 45 days at Benefis Health System. Breathing hasn’t been the same since.
Tracy, of Rocky Boy, died in 2018, which also shook him.
“I lived behind Walmart and flew a sign to make my money,” he said of his last camp in Great Falls.
His sign said, “Everyone needs a little help sometimes.”
Over the years, he tried to get housing in different states but couldn’t make it happen.
He still has many friends living on the outside.
“You can’t give up,” said Smith, noting he didn’t and eventually talked to the right people who helped him find his apartment.
Now he no longer feels like an outcast.
“We are people,” he said of the homeless. “We’re just trying to get that second chance. We’re not as bad as people may think we are.”
Smith is not sure what his future holds.
MORE: ‘Somebody’s going to die out here’: Exceptional cold puts freeze on city
He knows how to operate heavy equipment and paint. He can also do carpentry work. But he says he can’t work because of bad lungs and knees.
Reconnecting with his children is a priority.
Two days after Smith was released from the hospital after his toes were amputated, during an appointment at Opportunities Inc., he received an unexpected text message.
It was from Samantha, his daughter, who lives in Georgia. Smith had not seen her since she was 3 years old. Now 27, Samantha had gotten his number from Smith’s sister. Smith was shocked at his continued good fortune. First a home, now a text from his daughter.
“Me and her, we’re trying to close the gap,” he said.
Another child, Steven, 29, lives in northern California.
“Maybe one of these days, I’ll talk to my son,” Smith said.
Veteran Tribune reporter Karl Puckett is interested in the homelessness issue. Have ideas or questions for Karl? Reach him at [email protected] or 406-791-1471. Follow him on Twitter @GFTrib_KPuckett.
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