As we close the season centered on a young family forced to take shelter in a manger, please reflect as well on the thousands of Montana children who experience homelessness every day.
In the 2015-2016 school year, at least 3,066 schoolchildren in Montana were homeless. Over 1,100 of them were not yet 10 years old – and the data doesn’t include children too young to be enrolled in school. The majority of them “doubled up” with the families of friends or relatives, tightening the quarters for all. Roughly 20% of them stayed in hotels, motels, or rescue shelters. Another 8% called a car, garage, tent, or condemned building home.
However “not theirs” their homes were, at least they had the essential element of a home – a family unit. That was not the case for the many, many kids designated as “unaccompanied.” Typically older students with no family members in their lives, they find shelter where they can. One of our school staff in Great Falls took this picture of an “unaccompanied” student’s shelter last fall.
Be it ever so humble, this was home: a sleeping bag, a couple of blankets, an uncased pillow, and all his earthly belongings, including school notebooks, arranged on a shelf in a structure meant to support traffic, not transients.
Given the sub-zero temperatures this month, we hope this hapless camper has found a warmer place to land. But warmth is only one need to be met for homeless students. Physically, poor nutrition and environments put them at high risk for stunted growth, anemia, infectious disease, asthma, and lead poisoning, and they generally lack consistent access to healthcare. Emotionally, trauma, stress and constant change create a significantly higher incidence of mental illness, but less than 1/3 get professional help. Small wonder that they are also at high risk for academic difficulties. Weaker physically and emotionally and constantly moving, they’re harder to teach and harder to serve, and their test scores and grades show it.
Were it not for our public schools and the good works of Montana’s many community and faith-based organizations, these children would drift through our communities, largely unidentified and unserved. But one of the many things that our “big, bad, overreaching” federal government does is require that these students, like all students, get a free, appropriate public education. With that requirement comes funding, which Montana school districts can use to provide school supplies, transportation to the school homeless kids consider “theirs,” and staffing to ensure they’re identified and served.
The funding also allows school districts to provide clothing related to educational needs (coats and boots so they can go out for recess, an FFA jacket so they can be part of the club, gym shoes, etc.) and emergency supplies related to their ability to attend and succeed in school (e.g., underwear, socks, lice shampoo).
It makes a difference. This fall a homeless student long served by the Great Falls Public Schools began college. His scholarship included room and board. It’s the first time he’s ever had a place he could call home.
It’s not enough, of course. The federal homelessness funding allocated to Montana last year amounted to a measly $68.77 per identified student –maybe two tankfuls of gas for those of us more fortunate. Our communities’ and churches’ rescue missions, clothing drives, and food banks stretched those dollars farther than they would otherwise go. But nobody who works on this issue believes that anything close to all of our homeless children have been identified. And all agree that what we are providing only scratches the surface of what these kids need.
What can you do about it? As a new administration enters Washington with the mentality that the federal government has no business in education and that any helping hand from the government thwarts children’s efforts to be self-sufficient, remind the powers that be that to pull yourself up about your bootstraps, you have to have boots.
If you haven’t donated to your local rescue mission, school foundation or church group serving the homeless, write a check before the year closes.
And as we turn from Christmas to the holiday celebrating strangers from afar bearing gifts, light a candle for a warmer, more generous world. For too many children, “no room at the inn” isn’t seasonal. It’s a way of life.
Senator Mary Sheehy Moe (D – Great Falls) can be reached at email@example.com .