MISSOULA — Every story with a happy ending has a not-so-happy beginning. This particular story begins in a downtown alley, where 63-year-old Dave Douglas was sleeping early Saturday morning.
His drinking had gotten him in trouble at local homeless shelters, so he laid down Saturday night between buildings in the 400 block of North Higgins Avenue, in downtown Missoula.
There he was, blissfully at rest when he woke to a pair of men kicking him in the ribs and punching his face.
He tried to reach for his cane to defend himself, but as he inched up, another blow rained down upon him.
“They stole it,” he recalled. “They took my blanket, they took my backpack and left me there bleeding.”
“It” is Douglas’ wheelchair and without it, his mobility is severely limited.
That night, Douglas was forced to drag himself on his hands and knees to where the curb meets the sidewalk – hoping someone would have the decency to call 9-1-1. Then he passed out.
Douglas was in luck – sort of. He came to in St. Patrick Hospital’s emergency room – bloodied and bruised.
With the help of Poverello Center staff, Douglas reported the incident to the Missoula Police Department, explained the Poverello’s Travis Mateer, homeless outreach director.
The attack was probably fueled by alcohol, said Mateer, who hopes the report will help hold the men responsible accountable for their actions.
A few days later in another part of Missoula, Carol Fenoglio, a disabled veteran, was looking for a charity to accept her son’s old wheelchair.
About a year ago, Fenoglio’s son Christian was hit by a motorist who proceeded to drive away. Christian’s injuries were serious, but not fatal. A broken leg, MCL and ACL tear left him in need of a wheelchair, and eventually surgery.
After recovering, though, Christian no longer needed the chair. So Fenoglio went to the boy’s physical therapist, asking if there was a charity that accepted used wheelchairs. The office didn’t know of any such place, but a woman sitting in the waiting room excitedly spoke up, Fenoglio said.
“Listen, there’s a guy who got beat up and robbed of his wheelchair,” the woman said. “All I know is that he is homeless.”
The woman referenced an article she read in Tuesday’s Missoulian. Douglas was described, but not named in the story about last weekend’s attack.
That was enough to get Fenoglio going. She hatched a plan to get the barely used chair to the man who needed it. Plus, the story hit a nerve. Fenoglio said that a few months ago, Christian, who is autistic, was walking along North Higgins when two men beat him up and took his cane.
When she rolled up to the Poverello Wednesday morning, none of the staff had seen Douglas for a while. But as she was pulling the chair out from her vehicle, the shelter’s clients became visibly excited.
They were all painfully aware of Saturday morning’s attack and knew the wheelchair was for Douglas, who was slumped over in a chair in the alley.
“He still had dried blood all across his head,” Fenoglio explained. “And he looked like he was in so much pain and they were like ‘it’s him.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, let’s get him his chair,’ ” Fenoglio recalled, tearing up.
Another resident at the Poverello tested the chair to make sure it wasn’t faulty before people lifted Douglas into his new wheels.
He was also crying, Fenoglio said.
“You don’t need to be rich to give,” she said Thursday. “You just need to know what it feels like to be in need.”
In the excitement, Fenoglio drove off and Douglas – overjoyed with his reestablished freedom – wheeled away. Neither one had been formally introduced, until Thursday.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” Douglas said to Fenoglio. “I wanted to meet you. This come from the heart. I needed it.”
Fenoglio had been searching for Douglas for about an hour, and finally found him behind an East Broadway motel, taking his afternoon nap. His jeans were tattered and stained with blood.
When he coughed, he grabbed his ribs in pain.
“To society, I am bum, but in my heart I know I am not,” Douglas said.
He doesn’t know why anyone would want to beat him up and steal his wheelchair, and he’s worried that his attackers are not done with their violence. He thinks the next time they attack, it could be worse.
“I’m a decent man and I am a person, but sometimes bad things happen to good people,” he said. “When you live out like this – you got to take it all in stride. It’s rough. It’s rough.”