The Billings Outpost

Homeless man helped homeless

By ED KEMMICK - Last Best News

In 2012, having served on the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness for five years, John Hines decided it was to time to resign.

He represented the homeless community on the committee and had established a reputation as a thoughtful, articulate advocate for people whose opinions usually go unheard.

Other members of the committee were surprised but quite happy when they heard why Hines was giving up his position.

“An opportunity to move to South America for an extended period, to become more than a fortunate tourist, has become available to me,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “I feel that I cannot afford to let this experience pass me by.”

You might wonder how this man who had only recently escaped from homelessness was embarking on an overseas adventure.

It might be more useful to ask how this once successful, college-educated man with deep roots in Montana found himself broke on the streets of Billings. His story shows that there are no neat explanations for homelessness, and no easy solutions.

Hines died earlier this month in Arizona, where he was living near his sister. He was 69. He was born in Billings and raised in Joliet, where his family had been for generations. His sister in Arizona, Elvera Hines-Pabon, said their ancestors came to Montana Territory from Missouri after the Civil War, in the 1870s or ’80s.

She said her brother earned a college degree, married and worked as a reservation agent for Western Airlines for many years. He and his wife traveled all over the world in those days. Hines also served, from 1992 to 1995, as the mayor of Joliet, as his father once had. His descent into homelessness began when his wife left him. Elvera said he had “an emotional break.”

He lived with one of his sisters for a while, then with his parents in Joliet. His mother died first and then his father.

“Shortly after that he had to move out of the mobile home he was living in with Dad,” Elvera  said.

That was in 2004, and that’s when Hines ended up homeless in Billings. Hines himself must have felt bewildered about what had happened to him, which is not uncommon for people who have been through trauma.

Brenda Beckett, manager of community development for the city of Billings, said Hines never went into any detail about what happened to him. He said simply that he ran out of money and “woke up homeless.”

He found a berth at the Montana Rescue Mission, where he soon became employed, known for working long and hard in the kitchen or wherever he was needed. Beckett thinks it might have been in 2006 when Hines approached City Administrator Tina Volek with a proposal to start a not-for-profit coffee shop that that would also offer services and referrals to homeless people.

That idea never came to fruition, but Hines was invited to serve on the Mayor’s Committee on Homelessness. Beckett, who represented the city on the committee, said Hines was full of ideas, opinions and pertinent advice.

“He was always challenging me to do the right thing,” she said.

She remembers in particular the time she gave him a draft of a flier that the committee was working on. It was supposed to list all the services available to homeless people, advising them how to obtain help. Hines cut the flier into four squares, held up one square and said it should be no bigger than that. People on the street travel light, he said. And it should contain very few words, in very large type.

Then he handed the other pieces of paper back to Beckett and said, “They’re not going to take this big flier, with all due respect, Ms. Brenda.”

Beckett, who took his advice on the flier, said the encounter was typical of Hines. “He was very kind, very polite, very proper,” she said.

Lisa Harmon, who represented the Downtown Billings Association on the mayor’s committee, used language similar to Beckett’s in describing Hines’ work: “He just kept challenging the committee,” she said.

When Hines was still on the committee, Jessica Mowry, an AmeriCorps VISTA member assigned to the Illuminate Poverty project, wrote a short sketch of him. In it, Hines had this to say about homeless people:

“A lot of the people we see at the Mission may have suffered a great loss of self-respect, may have lost that little bit of drive that would get them out of the rut. … A homeless person needs self-confidence, a feeling of being respected … needs a great deal of encouragement.”

He may well have been thinking of himself, for despite all his eloquence and his passionate advocacy, he was strangely reluctant, or perhaps fearful, to make changes in his own life. Beckett said she and others kept nudging him forward, urging him to act on his own advice.

Finally, with the help of a caseworker at the Mission, he moved into an apartment near North Park four years ago and obtained federal benefits for which he had long been eligible. He continued to work full time at the Mission, and he saved his money by living frugally.

That, plus selling off many of his belongings, was how he gathered enough resources for his first trip to Argentina in 2012. His sister said he had a flair for languages and was fluent in Spanish. Apparently he had developed a Facebook relationship with an Argentinian woman and decided to go see her.

He spent three months there, until his visa expired, returned to Arizona for a while, then went back to Argentina for three more months.

Harmon said everyone in the Downtown Billings office was excited for Hines, and more than a little surprised that he’d managed to save enough money to travel and had obtained a passport and visa. She admits that when he left for Argentina, “I was worried like a mom.”

But he wrote often, sending postcards from Argentina. It wasn’t clear whether he developed a romantic relationship with his friend there, but he was very happy. Nor was it clear whether he intended to return to Argentina again. He was found in his apartment in Elgin, Ariz., on Feb. 3, having suffered cardiac arrest.

Harmon said the sadness felt by so many of his friends in Billings was tempered by the thought expressed by Joe Stout, one of her co-workers: “But he died in a home.”

He will have one last home, in Montana. His sister is planning to bring his ashes back this summer and have them interred in the cemetery in Joliet, where his parents and numerous other relatives are buried.

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