HELENA – Public school officials here have identified more homeless students this school year than ever before.
“McKinney-Vento – a topic I think the community dearly needs to hear about,” Jim McGrane, counselor at Helena Middle School, said.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homeless children and youths as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
It includes children living in shelters, hotels and cars. It includes teens who sleep on couches. It includes youth sleeping in parks and on other public land.
“One of the things I think would surprise a lot of people in our community is the number of homeless kids,” McGrane said.
According to district figures, there are 136 homeless students attending Helena public schools this year.
During the 2008-09 school year, there were 20.
“We haven’t had that much of an increase in students that are experiencing a homeless situation, we’ve just started counting them better,” said Brian Johnson, executive director of the United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area.
In recent years, Montana schools have become more aware of the struggles facing students who don’t have a safe or consistent place to stay.
Still, McGrane said, it’s hard to get an accurate count of the homeless students in Helena. Counselors rely on forms families fill in at the beginning of the year, and sometimes the address families list on the form serve as a red flag that the student may not have a home. McGrane said the district is working to add a box to the form that will allow families to acknowledge if they are struggling. But it’s something not many people want to announce, he said.
Counselors also encourage educators to alert them if they think a student might not have a place to stay. Each year, McGrane said, they find ways to improve identifying homeless students.
Classified according to federal and state guidelines, 27.7 percent of the homeless students in Helena live in a shelter. Due to economic hardship, loss of housing or other factors, 61.3 percent of homeless students share a residence with another family. Students living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings or other unsheltered areas make up 0.7 percent of the homeless student population in Helena. Hotels or motels house 8 percent. School counselors have not identified where 2.2 percent of the 136 homeless Helena students live.
Overall, 1.72 percent of Helena students are homeless, according to district figures.
Helena public schools received $9,623 from McKinney-Vento grant funds to spend on resources that directly help the education of homeless students, according to information provided by Sara Loewen, who oversees resources for homeless students in the district.
The district also benefits from the Angel Fund's Stuff the Bus Campaign, an effort every summer in Helena to collect school supplies for children in need.
Pam Campbell, a counselor at Bryant Elementary, said these supplies help fulfill some of the needs many students require in school.
“When you’re packing all your stuff in a couple of garbage bags, you often don’t have room for crayons and scissors and that type of stuff,” she said.
Students who are identified as homeless immediately qualify for free and reduced lunch, Campbell said. She added that students who become homeless after the first day of the school year can continue to attend the same school, even if they move across town to seek shelter.
The school district’s transportation system will pick the student up wherever he or she is sleeping and take them to their school.
The biggest need the school district cannot meet, Campbell said, is housing. There is not enough shelter or affordable housing in Helena, and that is often why families end up sharing a residence, Campbell said.
In those situations, parents aren’t connected with resources.
“Those are the families that fall between the cracks, because they're not hooked up with an agency,” Campbell said.
Jim McGrane said counselors keep an eye on the academic standings of homeless students.
If a student is struggling, counselors and teachers will work to get them up to speed, McGrane said. There are also tutoring opportunities available through the school district, he added.
“We provide transportation, we provide food, we provide educational supplies, we can put a dent in their clothing needs. I don’t know if there’s anything that we’re not doing that we should be,” McGrane said.
Students who don’t already have shelter are directed to community resources, but those agencies will always have more demand than availability, McGrane said.
“In this economic cycle that we’re in right now I don’t think there’s ever going to be an adequate resource base,” McGrane said.
Jamie Bawden, a counselor at Capital High School, said the school works with a variety of community partners.
Before the district transportation system offered specialized transportation for homeless students, Bawden said, she partnered with Town Pump to buy gift cards that could be used only for gas.
Similarly, she said Van’s offers marked gift cards that can be used only for food.
Jan Wenderoth, case manager at God’s Love homeless shelter, said that due to federal funding requirements, the shelter cannot take in children under 18 who are alone.
Wenderoth said that upstairs in the private rooms, she’s housed families who have children. But since starting work at God’s Love in 2008, Wenderoth said, she’s had only a couple students by themselves come in seeking help, and she had to turn away all but one, who was allowed to stay under extenuating circumstances.
“It really kind of freaks them out, I think, that when they come here they’re immersed in this actual homeless situation,” Wenderoth said.
Usually, students who come in alone have left their family after a disagreement, Wenderoth said. In those cases, she talks to the students about reconciliation. Otherwise, she said she tries to direct them to churches or families who could provide shelter.
Wenderoth said she’s seen Helena schools be very proactive in helping students staying with their family in God’s Love. Once, Wenderoth said, a principal visited to address a family whose daughter was absent on a regular basis. She said the girl went to school with the principal that day.
Kellie McBride, executive director of the Helena YWCA, said she saw a little girl leaving the shelter without a coat a few weeks ago when the temperatures were below zero. She called the student back in and dug through a pile of donated coats until finally finding one the student could wear.
Around the same time, McBride heard of a school administrator who made an empty threat to students who were misbehaving during indoor recess. The administrator told students that unless they behave, they would be going outside the next day, regardless of the temperature.
It was an empty threat meant to make the students behave, McBride said, but she called the school and reminded the administrator that some students don’t have coats, and such a claim could terrify them.
McBride said it’s important middle-class people remember some others live in extreme circumstances.
The YMCA serves women alone and with families who are seeking shelter. The waiting list for the rooms is 27 – a number McBride said is down, for now.
“We need more. We need shelter, we need housing, and as a community we can embrace that,” McBride said.
“The myth is that homeless people are men and they’re veterans, you know, or mentally ill; (in reality) the fastest growing segment of homeless is families,” Pam Campbell said.
“People are sometimes shocked when they hear what those numbers are at this building and I know it’s just a drop in the bucket. ... There’s a lot of things that don’t get reported because we don’t know or haven’t heard,” Jamie Bawden said.
At a presentation Friday night, Brian Johnson of the United Way reported 167 homeless students were in Helena this year, different from the district’s number of 136.
In an earlier conversation, Johnson said that is part of the problem: not having an accurate picture of the homeless situation in Helena.
“It is a solvable problem to count accurately the number of people homeless in our community,” Johnson said.
On Jan. 29, an annual national effort to identify homeless students is occurring. Called the Point-In-Time Homeless Survey, the method basically calls for volunteers to scour the town and count homeless people, Johnson said. With more volunteers, the count will be more accurate.
“We want a herd of volunteers, we want as many volunteers as Helena can muster,” he said.
With accurate numbers, advocate organization like United Way can approach policy makers, Johnson said.
Kellie McBride said some parents are afraid that if they report their situation, the state will take their children away. McBride said it’s important for people to know that is not true.
She also said donations to nonprofits will help provide more services.
“Every donation counts. When the community supports nonprofits that provide the services, the community is bettering itself,” McBride said.
For Mark Scarff, a parking enforcement officer with the City of Helena, the work to help homeless youth is more of a personal venture.
For the last five or six years Scarff and his wife have let homeless students who need shelter stay in their home.
Scarff adopted two homeless boys years ago. His sons' friends knew Scarff’s house was a safe place to stay, so they would sometime come knocking to stay the night.
Scarff would always house them. Sometimes just for a night, but sometimes he took them in for months, or in the case of one girl, a whole year.
“Maybe our biggest challenge is to understand these kids aren’t bad by choice or homeless by choice, circumstance played a huge part in putting them there,” he said.
He’s housed kids who were locked in closets at 2 or 3 years old, kids who were sexually abused, kids whose parents were abusive alcoholics. All of them were neglected in some way or another, Scarff said.
“On a cold night in January 2012, 67 families were without a home in Helena,” Scarff began a written note to himself.
“On January 26 2011, there were 21 children sleeping outside.
“They were likely praying to God for a warm bed. Maybe we, the more fortunate, are God’s answer to their prayer. If they need help, help them. I am the one who needs to respond, for I have not done nearly enough, for I truly have been fortunate beyond measure.”