BROWNING – It’s near the end of January, and the wind blew hard enough the day before that school officials considered canceling school. Had there been snow on the ground, the 75-mph gusts would have made it nearly impossible to see or get anywhere.
But the snow-heavy clouds were stuck on the Rocky Mountain Front, and this hardscrabble town on the Blackfeet Reservation shone bright in the deceptively cold winter sun.
All of this is to say, the weather here doesn’t make life much easier for 20-year-old William Righthand, who wore a tan polo shirt a couple sizes too big for him, a pair of jeans, and some sneakers to school last week.
He only walks about a block to get to the Project Choices alternative high school program, but his home at the Town Motel is fraught with inconsistencies and unknowns. The low-slung building has more cardboard than glass in the windows and sits in a potholed parking lot behind a pizza place.
Righthand and his younger brother painted the pizza place for the landlord as a way to make some cash; his little brother lives with a cousin in a different part of town now, and William stays with his parents at the motel.
At least it’s closer than when they lived with an uncle a couple miles from the school. They’d have to walk in the blistering cold, when the temperatures hit negative 10 degrees on their own, not accounting for the ever-present wind.
Righthand is just one of many homeless students in the Browning school district, and struggling to survive has made earning his education tougher than it might be for those who don’t have to worry about shelter or where their next meal is coming from.
It’s a life that would bring most to their knees within a week, but he’s not giving up.
“I wanted to get my education and go to college,” Righthand said. “I want to be able to do it the proper way.”
A significant number of Browning’s students lack consistent housing. According to Matthew Johnson, the director of alternative education in the Browning school district, about 140 students are designated homeless.
Some of it is cultural, he said – the definition of homelessness now includes living doubled up with another family, or sharing housing due to financial hardship. This is a common occurrence on the reservations. Homeless families can also be found living in hotels, motels, shelters, camping out, or sleeping in cars.
“A lot of it is just profound lack of resources, and profound poverty in our community,” Johnson said.
The state Office of Public Instruction, under the direction of State Superintendent Denise Juneau, recently released its figures on the homeless student population in the state. With better reporting from public schools, the total homeless student population in Montana increased from 1,487 students in 2010-2011 to 3,075 in the 2014-2015 school year.
In the 2010-2011 school year, there were only 40 public school districts identifying homeless students and reporting that information to OPI. By the 2014-2015 school year, there were 105 districts reporting.
It is critical to identify this population, Juneau said, because OPI can provide funding through the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This program is designed to help all students have access to public education.
According to OPI, Browning is one of the only reservation school districts to receive McKinney-Vento grant funding to support the homeless population. The students at the two alternative schools – Project Choices and the sterner, more structured Blackfeet Academy – are able to attend due to financing from the grant.
Johnson said alternative education is the only way some of his students will come to school. At Project Choices, there are two sections of classes, a morning session and an afternoon session. In order to graduate, students must present a senior portfolio with a filled-out job application, college application, give a presentation, and more.
The school takes a non-punitive stance when it comes to luring kids back, Johnson said. There are two school employees whose only job is to roam the reservation and search for students who aren’t in school, and convince them to come back.
“It’s always a better choice to come back to school,” Johnson said.
Juneau, who grew up in Browning and visited last week, said the homeless students are the most vulnerable, and the school is performing admirably with an entire program dedicated to the homeless population.
“There are a lot of families that are doubled up here,” Juneau said.
Browning High School Principal Shawn Clark said his Class A school has 550 students and 98 to 99 percent of them are American Indian. The nutrition program supports many of the kids all year, he said.
“If we were open 24 hours, we’d have kids here all the time,” Clark said.
Clark said the district has the second-largest busing system in the state, and it may also start a dinner program for its students, consisting of handing the students a premade dinner in a bag for the ride home or for when they get there.
The school is also starting its own food bank, Clark said.
In the Flathead, several programs have recently popped up to support the homeless student population. Nichole Heyer, the homeless education liaison for Kalispell and Evergreen schools, said her position was created about three years ago to support and connect with these kids.
There are 224 homeless students in Kalispell’s School District 5, she said, and 81 in Evergreen. The vast majority of these kids have a roof over their heads, Heyer said, but the situations are touch and go.
“The term ‘homeless children’ means they lack fixed, regular and adequate housing,” Heyer said.
A severe lack of affordable housing in the valley plays a huge role in the increasing numbers of homeless students, she said.
“This year’s trend is a lot of single moms who are working full time and doing the best they can, but rent just keeps increasing and there’s nowhere to rent,” Heyer said. “There’s an increase in the working poor who have nowhere to live.”
The Kalispell Heart Program developed the Heart Locker and Heart Markets, where residents can pass along kids clothing for kindergarteners up through high school students, as well as school supplies, snacks, grab-and-go food, gift cards to places students can get meals, and monetary donations.
Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana, a new nonprofit that provides long-term housing for unaccompanied high school students, will open its Whitefish location for five students in the spring, and the Kalispell house is expected to open in summer or fall. There are also negotiations for a Bigfork home in the works.
Life for William Righthand has rarely been easy. The closest it got was when he was growing up near Cut Bank Creek, where he and his older cousins would swim and play around.
His mom has some chronic pain issues, and his dad is registered in the Canadian Blackfoot tribe, so he can’t access the Blackfeet tribal programs.
Growing up in the rougher areas of Browning, Righthand learned early on to avoid certain pitfalls.
“When you run around as a kid, you see some pretty scary stuff,” Righthand said on a tour through his old neighborhood.
His parents insisted that he and his brother wear shoes when playing outside, even in the summer, for fear of dirty needles and other dangerous trash on the street.
When his grandmother died, Righthand’s family moved to Great Falls, where he lived from ages 12 to 17. They stayed with a cousin, and Righthand got his first job, working at a McDonald’s.
“That’s when I started to grow up,” he said. “I developed a stronger character.”
His job gave him a taste of independence, and made Righthand understand that what he wanted out of life was more than trying to scrape by when the food stamps run out. He wanted more than depending on Medicine Shelter in Browning for meals, more than shivering to and from school.
He moved back to Browning for his younger brother, Righthand said. He works at Nations Burger Station, and picks up odd jobs where he can. Splitting wood can be lucrative, but it burns precious calories and tires him out.
But Righthand shines at school, where his interest in the famous sequence has earned him the nickname “Fibonacci.” He has an affinity for producing music and art and is interested in graphic design. As of late January, he had about a month to go before earning the last credit and a half he needs to graduate.
After that, he intends on taking his general classes at Blackfeet Community College and helping out his mom.
Some of his biggest hardships are the most basic. Food stamps don’t last the whole month, and sometimes he has to scrounge food from relatives or find small jobs to pay for it. He’s also got eczema, a skin ailment common on the reservation, and his doctor recommends he stay out of the wind.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take a shower,” Righthand said.
And though the odds are stacked against him, Righthand is dedicated to succeeding. He said he won’t risk having kids until he can support them, and his hope is to be someone who kids in his situation can look up to in the future, in a job where he’s useful and productive.
Another part of that goal, one that Righthand discusses last, is having a job so people will automatically give him the respect and dignity that can be lacking for young adults in his position.
“I would like to be a CEO one day. I think it would be good to be in a high position,” Righthand said. “It would be cool to help out the kids.”