WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Wayne Williams spent 2½ days huddling under garbage in a Dumpster in Watford City. He burned his boot liners, scarf, hat and blankets to stay alive, but in the subarctic air of early January he froze his feet. The blackened appendages were amputated four weeks ago at a Minot hospital.
Today, Williams, 52, is still in the hospital, awaiting placement in a nursing home and the possibility of prosthetic rehabilitation.
He is clean among the freshly laundered white sheets and blankets, well cared for and stone cold sober.
Not long ago, his worst reality was homelessness, finding someplace to sleep and getting handouts to buy a bit of food and some booze to make it another day.
Now his reality is a pair of legs that end just inches below his knees.
He doesn't clearly remember what happened after he was taken to the Watford City hospital and then to Trinity Hospital in Minot.
"I remember waking up with no feet," he said, the confusion in his blue eyes magnified by thick reading glasses. "I thought they'd have to ask a guy before they did that."
He hoards plastic-wrapped salads and fruit cocktail on the window ledge beside his hospital bed, the habitual frugality of a man who doesn't know when he’ll eat again. There, too, is a copy of the New Testament, in type so small he has to put a second pair of glasses on top of the first to make out the words.
If he could find it, a little guidance would be good.
"I don't know what I'm going to do now. I was bad off enough before. It's a hopeless situation," he said.
Looking for hope
The irony of Williams' situation is that he came to Watford City looking for hope and work.
He'd read about all the booming oil field jobs in North Dakota in an old copy he found of a National Geographic Magazine. At the time, he was in Baton Rouge, La., scavenging aluminum cans for recycling, begging for handouts and living in a tent in the woods.
Williams put $225 together and in August, used $108 of it to buy a bus ticket to Williston. He rode his bicycle the remaining 47 miles to Watford City.
"I had $20 when I got off the bus," he said. He lived rough in a tent where he could and as long as he could before getting chased off.
Williams said he got a few days' work insulating and sheet rocking, but he never got paid.
For the most part, he spent days at a busy intersection in Watford City with a sign reading, "Homeless. Needs Work."
Life was a combination of handouts, insults shouted down at him and help from many people in town.
"I thought it would be a piece of cake, that even a blind man could find work here," he said.
One freezing cold night, he stumbled from his usual corner near the Kum & Go over to a Dumpster near the elevators.
"It was dark and I had to get out of the wind," he said. Time went by, days went by, and he was too numb and cold to pull himself out. He kept sliding backward on the garbage.
"I was thinking, 'I'm just gonna die here,'" he said.
As a last resort he took a board — he clearly remembers it had some nails on the end of it — propped it up and put his last blanket on it. He got enough traction to get up, throw his backpack over the side and hurl himself to the ground.
It was mid-day, and Williams picked himself up and walked over to a bar. "Some guys in the bar — I knew 'em, they gave me money before — said they wanted to see my feet because I was walking slow and funny. I took my boots off and they said, 'Hey, man, you're gonna lose your feet.'"
They took him to the hospital. "That's all I remember," he said.
Everyone knew him
Williams is a growing statistic in the oil patch, but he had a name in Watford City.
"We all knew our one homeless person," Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said. "I know the guy's name, everybody knew his name. My mother even tried to buy him a bus ticket back home."
The mayor said he's "horrified" by what happened to Williams and said despite the efforts of many to help him, "We didn't have the tools."
In 2012, the last year measured, the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People counted 1,400 homeless in North Dakota. Nearly 1,000 of those were living in cars, tents and campers in the oil patch and about 30 percent were children living with adults.
Some 50 of those homeless people were in the range of 16 and 17 years old, homeless with no adult, extremely vulnerable to exploitation, coalition director Michael Carbone said.
Carbone said it isn't easy to help homeless people, who may mistrust the system, or whose judgment is affected by mental illness or alcohol or chemical dependency.
He said the helping system is patchy at best. Out west, "It's a system with big holes," he said.
Williams was slippery, in his way. He'd come and go from churches and people trying to help couldn't keep him inside or even find him in Watford City.
Barb Becker, pastor of Glory of the Lord Family Ministries in Watford City, said she, other ministers and people in town did what they could, giving him a bed, clean clothes and offers of help. Unlearning homelessness is not easy, she said.
She said she got alarmed when temperatures sunk to 30 degrees below zero at the first of the year, so she went looking.
"I couldn't find him. I never did find him," she said. Next she heard, it was too late.
She believes the generous community of Watford City will support her goal to create a homeless shelter, hopefully in the community's hospital, if it's replaced as plans are now.
She envisions a Samaritan House that could offer a wide range of services to the homeless and the abused, perhaps rolling in thrift store or even food pantry outreaches.
Becker said she was homeless when she rolled into Watford City in 1977, with two kids, a drinking problem, and tough enough to get into bar fights and be the first female truck driver in the oil patch.
She's turned her life around, but she's never forgotten her beginnings in Watford City and the many people who reached out to help save her from herself.
"We did everything he (Williams) would let us do. We'll fight for him," she said. "He was shipwrecked and in a place of despair. I've been there. I'm just grateful that he survived," she said.
Carbone, of the homeless coalition, said Williams' story is sad, but in some ways predictable.
"People can't be stabilized when they're on the street. It just doesn't happen," he said.
Western North Dakota needs to get serious about the homeless out there so what happened to Williams isn't repeated, he said.
"The churches in particular have stepped up statewide. It's time for the Western communities to have a formal response and a plan, or this will happen again," he said.
Becker said drifters, families and single men looking for work stop in at the Glory of the Lord Ministries every day, some looking for job ideas, some looking for more.
"People need a place to be safe. Williams said he was terrified out there," she said.
Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or email@example.com.