The woman in the alley (2/2)

I was still pretty concerned about Jane as it was already snowing that evening and a lot of snow was predicted for later that night.

And it was just plain cold.

One of my rules for myself while working with our clients was to never show that I felt cold, even if I was freezing. No complaining, no shivering, no chattering teeth. I figured that if they were outside all day and/or were going to be out all night, I could bear any weather for a few hours without complaining.

But this night, as I squatted in the alley talking with Jane, it was tough to keep my body from shivering even with my layers and layers of warm clothing. Frankly, it was a bit difficult to resist the urge to climb into Jane’s cozy collection of blankets where it did look significantly warmer.

My partner eventually ended up getting back inside the van to warm up while I kept trying to coax Jane to the shelter.

Unfortunately, after our lengthy conversation with Jane during which we had left the headlights pointing at the tent for lighting, it turned out that we had drained the battery on our vehicle. And we didn’t have any jumper cables.


I admit that I panicked a little at this moment – it was dark, snowing, very cold, we were in a deserted alley, and we had a dead battery.

So much for giving Jane a ride somewhere warmer – we couldn’t even take care of ourselves!

It turned out not to be that bad, though. As we were frantically calling our counterparts on the outreach van and asking them to bail us out (turns out they didn’t have jumper cables either, and they were preparing to go retrieve some out of someone’s personal vehicle), our friend, Jane’s neighbor, passed by again on a walk with his dog. He noticed our predicament and said it would be no problem to pull his car out of the garage and give us a jump, so we accepted his offer.

Jane remained unyielding in her decision to spend the night in her tent. After the battery debacle, we headed back to the warehouse and called it a night. The snow was falling faster and faster as the night went on, and the next morning we had over a foot of snow.

Back in my warm bed, I could barely sleep that night. Each time I woke up and saw more snow, I had a sinking feeling, thinking about Jane in her tent. Was she warm enough? What if the tent caught fire with her inside?

I got up very early that day and went to check on Jane. I stopped by the coffee shop and picked up a hot drink for her, and then drove over to her tent. There was so much snow that I was worried my Honda Accord would get stuck in the alley.

Not sure if you have ever tried to knock on a tent that is covered in snow, but it’s a bit tricky. All the same, I eventually got Jane’s attention and she poked her head out of the tent. She was alive! I was so relieved. I gave her the coffee and asked how her night was.

She said it was okay, but she looked a lot less cheery than she had the night before. It seemed that neither of us had gotten much sleep. I gave her one of my business cards and told her to call us at the office if she wanted to talk about getting out of the tent during the cold snap.

She did call later that day and we were able to put her up in a motel for a couple of nights of respite from the cold.

With Jane in a motel and her basic survival assured for that time, the main agency that was helping her with her search for housing was able to make some serious progress since Jane wasn’t busy dealing with so many daily survival questions. They spent the next few days filling out paperwork, scheduling appointments to see apartments, and taking care of all the things needed to be considered for housing.

About a month after the big snowstorm, Jane moved into an apartment.

We helped her move her tent and belongings out of the alley, and it was such an incredible moment – so rare to see a literal transition from a tent on the street to an apartment.

I even noticed community members watching us from afar, pointing and smiling. I got the feeling that a lot of people had noticed Jane in her tent day after day and were concerned about her wellbeing. It felt good.

About a year after that, the police notified us that Jane had passed away in her home. She had a medical condition and it appeared that she had died peacefully in her sleep. As devastated as we were by the news, I did take significant comfort in knowing that at least she had a home and she enjoyed that stability and safety at the end of her life. She hadn’t frozen to death in the snow or burned up in a freak tent fire. She passed away peacefully in her own home, just like anybody would want.

I’ll always remember Jane, the spunky Montana woman with the tent in the alley who wouldn’t let herself be ignored.

And yes, I learned a very important lesson about jumper cables that evening. After checking on Jane that morning in November, I went to the auto parts store and bought a set for each of our agency vehicles and one for my own personal car. They’ve come in handy several times since then!

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