Two weeks ago, Stefani Jackson’s phone rang.
She picked it up to hear the voice of the man she knew only as Jack on the line.
Jackson had met Jack a couple of years ago when she first started her nonprofit Laundry Love Hamilton program to help the homeless pay for their laundry.
“He came up to me and said he wanted to help,” Jackson remembered. “He reached into his pocket and pulled out two dimes and a nickel. I thought I shouldn’t take it because I knew it was all he had.”
But she could see from the look in his eyes how important it was to him to be able to give.
Over the years, she got to know Jack and appreciate his compassion for others.
In the middle of the first week of November, Jackson received her first call from Missoula's St. Patrick Hospital. Jack was on the line.
He told Jackson he wasn’t going to make it that week to do his laundry.
“He said he didn’t want to worry me but he was in the hospital,” she said.
Jack had decided to try to walk from Hamilton to Missoula to get medical treatment for his feet and hands that had been bothering him since the cold settled in. He had collapsed alongside the highway near Victor.
People are also reading…
“He told me he didn’t know how long he was on the ground,” Jackson said. “He thought he had died and that an angel had appeared when a really beautiful woman appeared alongside the road to help him.”
A couple traveling to Washington state picked Jack up and took him north to Missoula.
“Jack said they were going to have to take a couple of things off his body due to frostbite,” Jackson said. “He told me to take his supplies and money and give them to someone else who could use it. Before he hung up, he told me he would probably be back in a couple of weeks.”
Three days later, Jackson received a call from the hospital.
Jack had died. The only piece of identification he had was the Laundry Love card with her phone number on it.
“They asked me how I knew him,” she said. “My card was alongside his bed. They said everyone who came into his room had to hear about me.”
“I don’t even know for sure that was his real name,” Jackson said. “All I know is that I wished I was half the person he was. No matter what, he was always positive and compassionate. He was always helping people.”
“I can tell you that I cried and cried after I hung up the phone,” she said. “I’ll never forget him. I don't want his death to be in vain."
Jack was a common sight in Hamilton on his bicycle pulling a trailer, but Jackson knows that people probably drove by without a notice. She knows of other people living in their cars in parking lots who people never see.
With temperatures set to plunge again this week, the founder of Family Shelter of the Bitterroot, Gary Locke, hopes local residents will do whatever they can to ensure that other homeless people don’t die this winter.
“As a community, we need to ask them,” Locke said. “We need to ask them if there’s something they need instead of assuming they will come and seek out help from others. All of us need to get involved so this doesn’t happen again.”
With rapidly rising rents, homelessness is on the rise in the Bitterroot.
In the 2021 community point of time survey, there were 188 people identified as homeless, Locke said. The year before the number was 100. The average has been in the 40s in the two decades since the community began its surveys.
“Homelessness is just skyrocketing,” Locke said. “This year has been much worse with rents going up. People can’t afford them.”
Locke's organization has identified 27 families with children living in cars and vans in the Bitterroot Valley, he said.
“Most are people who have found themselves in a pinch,” he said. “They had a relationship blow up or some other unexpected event that put them out on the street … One missed paycheck and they become homeless. These are folks who can’t just get a bus ticket and go home. They live here.”
For the first time in four years, the Family Shelter of the Bitterroot hasn’t identified a place that will serve as a warming shelter for this winter. The organization is working with the Salvation Army to provide survival gear to people who don’t have a warm place to go.
“We are trying to get as much warm stuff as we can get to help people get through this next stretch,” Locke said. “If people see someone walking through the park with a full pack, I hope they will ask if they need something. If they don’t have a phone, have them wait while you call me.”
Locke’s phone number is 406-239-8833.
“Get them to stay put while we get them whatever they need,” Locke said.
The organizations have a storage unit to store donated gear. If people have something they would like to donate, Locke said to call him.
If people want to help the effort financially, they can send a check to Family Shelter of the Bitterroot, P.O. Box 656, Hamilton, MT 59840.
On Tuesday morning, Jackson was driving around Hamilton looking for a place that could serve as a warming shelter this winter.
“We need a warming shelter and we need it soon,” Jackson said. “When you have a nice warm bed to go to at night, you really don’t think about the cold. People need to know that this is really happening right here in our own communities. These people need a warm place to go.”