On any given day over the last year, between 100 and 300 youths were without a permanent, safe place to sleep in the greater Kalispell area, according to a tally estimated by the school district.
Many of the homeless teenagers were couch surfing at friends’ or extended family’s houses. Some slept in vehicles or camped in the woods on the outskirts of their communities. Others faced more extreme circumstances, becoming easy prey for those looking to take advantage of them.
As the testimonies keep surfacing, the alarming reality of homelessness among local young people is increasingly coming to light. But new awareness has sparked coordinated efforts among community members and school administrators to address the problem.
In February, Kalispell Public Schools appointed Ronda Stevens the district’s homeless education liaison to serve as a student advocate and resource coordinator. The position is federally funded by an annual grant and Kalispell is one of eight cities in Montana to receive the aid.
Stevens’ initial task was to try to identify the amount of students in preschool through high school who lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Stevens surveyed school counselors, data collected by the state and programs that offer free and reduced meals at school.
The numbers fluctuated for several reasons, including students’ reticence about being homeless, but Stevens was able to determine that at least 50 teenagers attending both Glacier and Flathead high schools fit the description of homeless, and the total number for all ages across Kalispell and Evergreen surpassed 300.
“I was just amazed at the stories,” she said.
“There are young people who want to be going in the right direction, they just have some obstacles that people don’t understand and don’t see. They are such strong individuals and strong kids. It makes you want to help them.”
Now that she understands the issue’s depth, Stevens is working to spread awareness and education, hoping the community can rally together to tackle the complicated problem.
“They are so vulnerable,” Stevens said of homeless young people.
“When they need help and they don’t know where to go and they don’t want anyone to know they need help, that’s when they can run into trouble and find shelter from the wrong source.”
In April, Kalispell Schools Superintendent Darlene Schottle penned an open letter to the community seeking any possible assistance that is available.
“If your organization has resources that you believe would benefit these students we would like to provide access to your services,” Schottle wrote.
Similarly, the Graduation Matters Kalispell program, part of a statewide effort to reduce dropout rates, is trying to gather “mentors” who could be matched with students struggling to stay in school. The organization hopes to find 50 adults by September who could help during the next school year.
In recent months, a group of parents and other community members responded to Stevens’ campaign and are focusing on developing a temporary shelter for homeless teens.
“We’re mothers. We want to help,” said Stacey Schultz, a member of the Flathead High School parent group and the new group addressing homelessness.
Marcia Bumke has helped organize town meetings in recent weeks and spoke in front of the city council on July 1 seeking its help.
“These kids are at risk,” Bumke said.
Bumke and other concerned residents met at the United Way conference room at Gateway West Mall on July 11 to discuss options and opportunities for a shelter.
Sister Judy Lund from St. Matthew’s Parish, who was in attendance, has already secured $3,000 for the project from a collection by Dominican nuns.
But more is obviously needed.
“That’s what we need, is people who will step up,” said Rod Stell, also from St. Matthew’s.
The project’s largest hurdle is finding an adequate site that is centrally located where a shelter could be established.
The group is asking landowners and other residents who could possibly help for their assistance.
“If something out there is viable, we want to do that,” Bumke said.
The group’s next meeting is July 18 at 4 p.m. at the United Way Conference Room, 1203 Highway 2 West in Kalispell.
The Flathead Youth Home in Kalispell is licensed to house eight boys or girls between the ages of 10 and 18 at one time. The facility has been consistently near capacity the past two years, with seven kids staying at the shelter on a daily basis, according to Program Director Lance Isaak.
The average shelter stay is less than 30 days, and the youth home annually serves roughly 100 kids, Isaak said.
“We continue to put our name out there and talk to school counselors and anyone who really connects with kids on a day-to-day basis so we could be a potential resource,” Isaak said.
The Samaritan House in Kalispell, the largest refuge for homeless men, women and children in Northwest Montana, is unable to allow anyone under 18 years old to stay as an individual overnight at the shelter.
Even if it could help, though, the Samaritan House remains perpetually busy.
“I see very consistent growing homeless numbers, from my perspective,” Executive Director Chris Krager said. “We usually see an increase of 8 to 10 percent every year of the numbers we serve.”
Last month’s third annual Project Homeless Connect reflected a similar scenario. A record number of homeless or impoverished people took part in the two-day event, which provided key services like medical and dental.
A total of 635 unduplicated clients registered at Project Homeless Connect, according to Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana, which organized the event with the Samaritan House.
Of those individuals, 179 were youth who were homeless or on the brink of homelessness. Last year’s event served 552 individuals, including 120 youth.
For more information about providing resources to the school district, contact Stevens at 751-3630 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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