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Laura Belcourt

Laura Belcourt signs in as a volunteer at The Hub recently. Belcourt, who has been homeless and in and out of prison throughout much of her life, is planning to take classes to prepare for college. She hopes to major in human services and eventually mentor preteens.

Laura Belcourt never had much of a chance.

Molested at age 3, life got off to a very bad start. It didn’t get better when her mother couldn’t pay the rent and wound up settling the family in a camper-trailer parked at a California lake.

When Laura was 8, her mother died and Laura was shuttled north to stay with a Minneapolis cousin, who molested her. The worst part was no one believed her when she complained.

Laura started early on drugs and alcohol.

At 17, so out of control her that father didn’t know what to do with her, she signed on with a traveling circus.

“I just decided I could do whatever I wanted,” said Belcourt, now 45 and learning, at last, to deal with the hand she’s been dealt. “I just wanted to do my own thing.”

It’s been a long, ugly road for Belcourt, who counts herself among Billings’ homeless.

At 18, she wound up in Wolf Point with $60 in her pocket and nowhere to go. She checked into a hotel for the night and blew the rest of her money on fireworks. A sympathetic local family took her in, and she tried to complete her education there.

“But I had no clothes, no stable place to stay, and I was partying all the time,” she said. “Sometimes it gets to the point where you just don’t care.”

Her next move was to Billings, where she turned to prostitution.

“It was easy money,” she said. “I had food on the table and a roof over my head.”

After three weeks on the street, Laura met her husband in 1984. He was no dream come true. Beatings were a regular part of married life. Eight years and four children later, Laura left.

“I landed on the street this time,” she said.

Deep into drugs and alcohol, Laura slept where she could. There were boyfriends, lots of boyfriends, she said. She stopped taking her medication to treat her mental illness.

“That’s when my real path to jail and institutions started,” she said.

By her own count, she was jailed 57 times in Billings, mostly for misdemeanor offenses — obstructing justice, trespass, drug paraphernalia and prostitution. Between 1984 and 2008, Laura said, she was in mental health institutions, including the State Hospital at Warm Springs, 19 times.

Finally, on June 5, 2008, she got drunk, stole a car and sped the wrong way down a one-way street head-on into another vehicle. The man driving the other vehicle was severely injured.

“Not a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think I could have ended his life and mine, too,” she said. “That’s when I hit rock bottom. What’s next — killing somebody?”

She spent time in Montana Women’s Prison for that incident and came out sober. Now, after connecting with the P.A.T.H. program and The Hub, Laura is learning her own strength and recognizing the traps that constituted the vicious circle of her life. Chief among them is co-dependency, which led her to put her needs behind those of others in her life — things like spending her rent money to bail a friend out of jail.

“I’ve learned you have to help yourself before you can help others,” she said.

Friends, mentors and case managers at The Hub have connected her with other Billings resources that she needs to stay on course — mental health services, medications and eventually a chance to move from the Women’s and Family Shelter into subsidized housing.

“The Hub gives you help. They really do care about you and what’s happening to you,” she said. “When you walk in here, it feels like arms are wrapping around you.”

For the first time, Laura said, she is making plans for a better future.

“I’m going to get a job,” she said. “I’m going to keep writing poems.”

She has a GED and is planning to take courses that will prepare her for college, where she wants to major in human services. She’d like to mentor pre-teens, warning them about what life can throw at them.

And most of all, Laura said, she wants to see her poetry published. She’s already on her second book.

“Today I have the courage to say, ‘This is what I’ve got to do. This is what I’ve got to get done.’ ”

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or