Joel Simpson sees strength in Billings' homeless population.
He said that despite common lifelong bouts with addiction, unemployment and trauma, these people wake up every day and try to make it work. And they look out for each other, though most residents look past them.
"Who you see downtown are a lot damn stronger than you think," Simpson said.
He spoke about his experiences in front of about 25 people Thursday evening at the Billings Public Library. He co-hosted the event with Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman, a counselor with the Office of Public Instruction based in Pryor.
They were invited to speak as part of a monthly meeting that fosters discussions about some tough community topics. Authors Russell Rowland and Adrian Jawort started the meeting, dubbed the Native American Race Relations and Healing Consortium.
Thursday's discussion touched on issues of homelessness, mental health and addiction.
Simpson spoke about his work as part of the Billings Community Innovations Initiative. The program started in 2014 and places Simpson, a licensed social worker, with law enforcement for a jail diversion program that focuses on serial inebriates.
Last month, the Billings City Council approved funding for a second outreach coordinator to join Simpson.
They focus on about 74 repeat offenders who get caught in a ticketing and jail cycle with law enforcement. Most of them, he said, are Native American. The program aims to urge these repeat offenders into a treatment-based environment.
He said that part of that work involves finding strength in people. Often, that strength is derived from their lives before living on the streets.
"Thousands of people drive by them every day, but they won't know the stories," Simpson said.
He told stories of some of the people he works with. One common attribute among the Native Americans he's encountered is a strong tie to their cultural identity, he said, especially in a situation where human relationships act as the most potent currency.
Rondeaux-Hickman, as well as Simpson, are Crow. Rondeaux-Hickman also spoke about fostering strong cultural identities in her professional life. Her work includes mental health counseling for youth.
An advocate for Crow culture as part of a healthy life, she said a great strength lies in one of the most innocuous facets of Crow culture — the virtue of community.
"We are contextual," she said. "Out strengths are one another's strengths."
Thursday's discussion took place among people sitting in a large circle, facing each other. People shared comments and personal stories. One woman gave her account of nearly lifelong drug and alcohol use and spoke about working on finding a better place. It's a work in progress.
Those are the personal stories of addiction that people may ignore, Simpson said. It's a challenge, and a deeply personal one.
He told the story of one man who had been homeless across the western United States, in cities like Denver and Seattle. He came from a longtime experience around drugs and alcohol.
The man was into art. He would sometimes pawn his art and buy booze with the proceeds. But the art became the man's support in treatment, and after moving from town to town for years, the man became the first graduate of Simpson's program in October.
"When he came here, he said, 'I got to stop running because I can't get away from myself,'" Simpson said.