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A couple finishes laundry

A couple finishes laundry at St. Vincent de Paul. They fear they will be homeless when their lease on a $500-a-month studio appartment runs out this month.

Allen bristles when someone refers to him as homeless, although he is.

"Being homeless is humiliating," said the aging former Merchant Marine from the Midwest. "The perception is that homeless people are all drunk or on drugs."

Allen (not his real name) said he's a college-educated engineer, and his vocabulary hints of better times. He uses words like "appellation" and talks philosophically about life on the road.

He arrived in Billings about a month ago on a Greyhound bus after spending some time in Alaska. He's planning to move on in February, heading home to family.

"I won't be homeless there," he said.

He's living at the Montana Rescue Mission and spends a lot of time during the day at St. Vincent de Paul, where he can pick up a sack lunch or stay inside where it's warm and dry. Allen said he would like to work but doesn't have transportation.

Agnes Samples, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, said the words "homeless" and "client" are not used at the downtown center where many destitute families and individuals come for help.

"We call them friends," she said. "Because that's what they are."

Blankets, gloves, coats and food are available for friends in need, as well as a kindly word or a referral to other services. In a recent remodeling, St. Vincent de Paul has added restrooms and a laundry facility.

The new front-loading washers and dryers have proved a big hit. They're busy constantly and are booked days in advance. An ever-increasing number of people without permanent homes are using the charity's services. Many new clients are single mothers with children, Samples said.

"Our mission is to be here," she said.

Carmen Gonzalez, team leader for the Mental Health Center's P.A.T.H. program (Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness), said a lot of people she encounters also object to the word "homeless."

This year, when preparing for the Jan. 27 annual Project Homeless Connect and count of people without permanent homes, the name was changed to something more acceptable to those being served.

The 2012 event will be called "Project Community Connect."

Gonzalez said she hopes the event will draw not only those without homes, but those who may be in danger of losing theirs.

"We want to help prevent them from getting to that stage," she said.

It's easier to keep a family in a home than to try to find another one, Gonzalez said.

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or