WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Wayne Williams used to live in the swamps of Louisiana, sleeping outside and not caring that he didn’t have a home.
Like thousands of others attracted by the oil boom, Williams moved to North Dakota in search of work. But he was so used to living out in the elements that he didn’t anticipate how dangerous being homeless in the cold could be.
One night, Williams climbed in a Dumpster in Watford City to get out of the wind, burning two of his blankets, his boot liners and his scarf to stay warm. But his hands and feet got so numb from the subzero temperatures it took 2½ days before he managed to climb out.
“My fingers were freezing and my feet were frozen and I could barely stand up,” said Williams. “I thought I was going to kick the bucket in there.”
Williams said he thought he’d get the feeling back in his feet after he went inside the Kum & Go to warm up. But he noticed they were turning black, and a friend he ran into from Bible study drove him to the emergency room.
He later woke up in Trinity Hospital in Minot, with both of his legs amputated below the knees due to the severe frostbite.
That was a little over two months ago, and while Williams is healing, he’s got a long road ahead of him.
Williams left the hospital Friday, took a cab to a nearby grocery store to buy his first cigarettes in two months and five days and wait for his ride.
“I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going to go,” Williams said.
He gets around in a used wheelchair a friend brought him and is now staying with friends near Watford City, wearing knee pads to so he can move around the trailer on his hands and knees.
Williams is waiting for Medicaid paperwork to be processed and is expected to be fitted with prosthetic legs.
In the meantime, he is looking for work in Watford City so he has money for living expenses and $200 a month in prescriptions.
“I just keep praying about it. That’s all I can really do,” Williams said.
$20 and a sign
Williams, who took the bus from Louisiana to North Dakota last July and arrived with $20 in his pocket, was known for standing by the Watford City Kum & Go holding a sign that said he was looking for work.
Williams was back there Tuesday in his wheelchair with a sign that read “Needs work. Help if u can? God bless u.”
Before the amputation, some people driving hollered at him to get a job, but Williams said his goal was just that – to find work, not a handout.
“Everybody interpreted that as a request for money, but literally he was asking for work and he was serious about it,” said Paul Lehto, who moved to Watford City from Michigan last year and met Williams through a men’s church group.
Before his injury, Williams found two construction jobs by holding the sign, but got frustrated after neither one paid him for the work he did. In one case, Williams said he installed insulation all day long and even one all-nighter, but he got strung along when he inquired about a paycheck.
“I just didn’t want to give up,” Williams said. “I hate the cold, but I didn’t want to give up and turn around and go back to Louisiana because there ain’t nothing there.”
An unnecessary tragedy
Community members in Watford City were devastated to hear about Williams losing his feet, said the Rev. Barb Becker of Glory of the Lord Family Ministries.
“What happened to Wayne really wounded this community,” said Becker, who visited him several times in the hospital. “We were all heartbroken about it because it was all so unnecessary, a terrible tragedy.”
Several people had tried to buy Williams a bus ticket to Louisiana as temperatures started to get cold, Becker said.
While Williams now says he wishes he would have listened, Becker encourages him to look forward.
“We can’t go back to that. It’s time to move on,” Becker said. “Let’s take this tragedy and turn it into triumph.”
Becker and others had been working to establish a homeless shelter in Watford City for some time, and Williams’ story has brought the need front and center, she said.
“It helped ignite the fire a little stronger,” said Becker, who said the community supported her years ago when she was homeless.
Becker is working with someone who is considering donating land for a shelter. Otherwise, the town’s hospital may be an option after a new hospital opens, Becker said, but that could be two years away.
“In the meantime, we do the best we can,” Becker said. “We really have a need now, though.”
Lehto is spreading the word about Williams, a man who has never applied for food stamps or welfare and collected cans or did odd jobs to meet his needs in Louisiana.
“He’s trying to be a rugged individualist, trying to make it on his own,” Lehto said.
People who get to know Williams as more than a man holding a sign learn he is deeply spiritual and enjoys giving bouquets of flowers to strangers – earning him the nickname “flower man” in Louisiana.
Lehto is working to raise funds to help Williams while he waits for Medicaid assistance, in addition to raising awareness about homelessness.
“It’s something that can happen really to anybody, whether they realize it or not,” said Lehto, who stayed in a tent when he first arrived in Watford City and now lives in an RV due to the city’s abundance of jobs but shortage of housing.
The Wayne Williams benefit fund at First International Bank will go toward meeting needs that Williams has, such as buying him much-needed glasses, a cell phone and replacing some belongings that he lost. Williams wants any extra money to go toward the homeless shelter.
“Wayne’s goals are usually pretty frugal and pretty modest,” Lehto said.
Becker, who was surprised Williams left the hospital, is encouraging Williams to consider rehabilitation so he can learn to walk with prosthetic legs. But Williams, whose main worry about being in a wheelchair is “it’d be hard to live off in the woods,” is talking about making his own prosthetic legs.
He says the most difficult part of his ordeal was being cooped up in a hospital room.
“That bothers me more than worrying about how I’m going to walk or whether I’m going to get phony legs,” Williams said.
Williams, who stays in good spirits, said he lives one day at a time.
“Crap happens. You just accept it,” Williams said. “You can’t sit around and boo hoo all you want, it’s not going to get you nowhere.”
Williams isn’t sure what his future holds, but he doesn’t have family or any reason to go back to Louisiana, he said.
Becker is hopeful that Watford City will have a shelter in place soon.
“If he’s willing to, he’ll always have a place,” Becker said. “He won’t be on the streets anymore, he’ll have a safe place. We’d like to include him in that ministry.”