HARDIN - When darkness falls and temperatures drop below survivable levels, people of the street drift toward the Big Horn County jail to ride out the night.
A few stiff plastic chairs line the small lobby adjacent to the secure area of the sheriff's office, and there is floor space for a bedroll or two.
"On a really cold night, four or five people will be staying here," said Undersheriff Rondell Davis. "The reasoning behind it is that it alleviates the chance of finding those people on the streets frozen to death."
It also means they aren't out causing trouble or breaking into buildings in an effort to find warmth. But comforts are scant in law enforcement annex at the courthouse.
"It's cold," said Joe Dust, who has spent a few desperate hours there. "The floor's cold."
At 7 a.m., it's time to leave - time to find a new way to evade hypothermia and frostbite. Before the Street Outreach Shelter Inc., opened its door at 21 E. Fourth St. on Dec. 3, Dust might have spent most of the day wandering downtown.
Hot soup, coffee
Now, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, Dust can drop in at the shelter and stay all day if he needs to. Outreach worker Faron Iron will mix him a cup of microwave soup and toss him a package of snack crackers. Hot coffee is always brewing and Iron has recently tucked in a supply of juice for his guests. Iron will try to find him a place to stay before going home for the night.
"I had 19 people in here yesterday," Iron said on a recent cold morning. "I've had six in so far today."
Word spread quickly that the new shelter provides a welcoming refuge from the worst of winter. People come and go, sometimes dropping in for a cup of water or hot coffee; sometimes just to use the two new handicap-accessible restrooms that the shelter was required by law to install.
The center's board of directors believes that the shelter can serve as a connection to existing programs and resources that support clients on a path to becoming independent, productive citizens.
Sometimes clients spend the day, joshing each other over a card game. Sometimes, if the night has been too short, they settle in for a nap on two tables that Iron has converted to cots with foam mattresses brought from home.
"A lot of them are up all night trying to keep warm," Iron explained.
Sometimes they come in too sick to eat after a night of drinking. But only about 20 percent arrive drunk, Iron said, and he's never had anyone cause real trouble.
It's a population with which Iron is intimately familiar.
"I have a family history," he said. "My father was an alcoholic on the streets here."
So was a favorite uncle, and one of his grandfathers suffered crippling frostbite while lost in an alcoholic fog on a winter night.
When the planning for a shelter began six years ago, the goal was to provide overnight accommodations. That's still the long-term plan.
"But it was a bigger project than we ever imagined," Iron said.
In winding their way through the process, Iron and Agnes Halverson, a former emergency room nurse who initiated the project, talked with shelter operators in Billings and Sheridan, Wyo. Folks in Sheridan suggested Hardin start with a day shelter before tackling the larger challenge of a 24-hour center.
One of their first tasks was finding financing and support from public and private entities. In January 2007, Big Horn County commissioners purchased a small building for the shelter just off the town's main street.
The Crow Tribe kicked in $60,000 and more money came from churches, the city of Hardin and a Montana Coal Board grant. Iron and Joy Kimsey, director of the shelter, are the only paid staff. Pete, who did not want his last name used, helps out with maintenance and security and stays in the building at night.
Iron and Kimsey hope to recruit volunteers to keep the shelter open longer hours and on weekend.
The whole process has been a learning curve so steep that Iron said he wondered whether the shelter would ever become reality.
There were appraisals, fund raising, health codes, business license, building permits, Americans with Disability Act requirements, nonprofit status regulations and even intervention by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality when asbestos was found in flooring that was being removed.
"It seemed there was always another hurdle," he said.
Kimsey, who Iron said came as an answer to prayers, stepped in to straighten out the paperwork and provide the sorely needed administrative hand.
The center is still not finished. Iron wants coverings for the cement floor and a comfortable lobby to replace the battered tables and folding chairs in the main room.
"It's not furnished the way I'd like it, but we wanted to open the doors as soon as we were legal," he said.
In its first month of operation, Iron said, he's learned a lot about the needs of the homeless in his community. He also came to believe that the ultimate goal of an overnight shelter wouldn't be so daunting after all.
"There are really very few - three to six - who really don't have a place to go," he said. "We need an average of six beds a night, maybe 10 on weekends. If we could get a house somewhere in this area, it would be great."
He's found that the homeless population is fluid, with people moving from the home of one family member to the next and occasionally finding there is no place to go for the night. A few who are steeped in alcohol or drugs have worn out their welcome with every friend or relative with an extra couch.
"For Native Americans, problems with alcohol have touched many lives," Iron said. "I thought there has got to be something we can do about it."
He has high hopes for a new detoxification program that his brother-in-law, Lane Simpson, plans to launch at the Spirit of Life Four Square Church in Crow Agency, where both men are members.
Simpson, a recovering alcoholic and a former employee at Rimrock Foundation in Billings, said a detox facility on the Crow Reservation will begin receiving people within the next week or two at cabins on church property. By spring, he envisions moving to a permanent facility being constructed on donated land on Reno Creek.
While working at Rimrock, Simpson said, he became aware of how little support is available on the reservation for people who need help staying sober. That's why the E 36 Ranch developed, he said.
Many Native Americans are ordered into treatment by courts after their initial detoxification in a local jail, he said. But getting into treatment can take two months, and in that time, the offender often gets right back into trouble. E 36 Ranch will offer a place to stay and a head start on a Christian-based 12-step recovery program, he said.
Iron hopes that he will be able to refer clients to the ranch.
Simpson said the ranch is in need of food, twin-sized mattresses, toiletries and men's clothing. To reach the ranch, call 406-638-1856, or go online to www.e36ranch.com.