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Guest Post: What Children Are These?

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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 protected] .

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we\'d certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Mary Sheehy Moe

Mary Sheehy Moe lives in Great Falls.

13 Comments

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  • What a heartbreaking post. My heart goes out to these children in desperate need of the basic necessities and someone, anyone, to love them. Would the author care to name a few charities that work with homeless children where on could make a donation?

  • Montana children?? Really? Are they really from Montana? And their families? I seriously doubt it, and I seriously doubt your numbers.

    But let’s assume they are correct. What can we do? Well first, we can stop attracting even more low wage workers to our state. For example, every damn one of those idiots in local government here in GF orgasms every time they brag that we are getting another Walmart here in town.

    So, what does that mean? It means that we will attract 300 more low wage part- TIME jobs! In other words, we will have even more families that cannot even support themselves!

    Three hundred MORE folks who can’t support themselves on non-livable wage. And they bring with them a whole host of new problems with their attendant families, wives, kids relatives, cousins, etc., who have NO place to live. And even if they did, they could not afford the predatory rents here in GF.

    But not just rents. The will have NO health care of any kind, and most ALL the time their kids and family members have special needs and huge medical needs! SOME one needs to make up the difference!

    And guess who that would be? You and I, neighbor taxpayer. We now are currently building even another low income housing complex in GF. Three hundred units. What a damn coincidence, right? SO we get to subsidize their housing, their health care, their food bill, their education, and on and on. What do we get in return? A chance to subsidize the Walton family and all their altreich crap! NOT a good return on our investment I’d say.

    I hate to sound like Ayn Rand, but at some point it must stop. Best place to start is at the source. Tell the Waltons to take a flying leap. We can NOT keep lying that this type of growth is progress OR beneficial in any way. And that is what we SHOLD be doing, holding our elected officials accountable. They wouldn’t even tell us before hand just WHAT this huge project was that was coming to town. Most everyone in town speculated that it might be a Costco, a company that pays a good wage with benefits. When we found out it was to be another Walmart, many folks were outraged. Do NOT allow substandard companies to come here.

    And don’t even get me started on ADF, a company that was given HUGE tax breaks, and then lied about all the promises made. In fact, they were so brazen as to call our beloved Montana northern Mexico! The LOVE the fact that our elected officials are dumber than dog crap! We can and must do better.

    Bottom line? Economic development must make economic sense. As long as the city idiots keep attracting crappy jobs, we’re gonna keep getting sub-marginal people, people with SO few skills that they can’t make it on their own. Look, even working your azz off with two or more jobs, it’s damn hard to make it now days. So why cut your own throat by bringing in even more people? Doesn’t make sense. Economic development must make economic sense.

    As far as kids without homes, I know a whole lot of folks who grew up in the orphanage down in Boulder. Their parents were too poor to take care of them. All of these folks grew up to be successful citizens who never had to rely on government assistance. Why not do that again if necessary?

    But first off, we need to defeat fascism. That really must be our primary goal at the moment. For without that, we’re all screwed anyway.

  • Karen, two organizations in Great Falls where I know a donation will go directly to the homeless are:

    Great Falls Rescue Mission, P.O. Box 129, Great Falls, MT 59403-0129
    Great Falls Public Schools Foundation, P.O. Box 2429, Great Falls, MT 59403 (specify “homeless program”)

    LK, the numbers are accurate, although they undoubtedly seriously under-report the problem. They come from OPI’s 2015-16 report on use of federal funds for the homeless.

    • Mary, I actually give to the Rescue Mission. It is basically the only charity I give to because they have NO overhead. Every cent goes to help. (and they saved my butt one day when the bus station wouldn’t take a check. a guy from the mission made up the difference for my ticket. I’ve never forgotten that.)

      But the thing is, there are literally millions of homeless in this country. I don’t get out of the state much, but I did go to Portland a couple of summers ago and was amazed at the number of homeless people just living everywhere. Can we take care of them all here in Montana?

      My point being, if you build it, they will come. I see that new family center downtown. Has anyone ever asked where these people come from? And why?

      I actually knew a lot of folks staying at the mission at one time, and they were all from somewhere else. My point is, where does our responsibility end? If you build it, they will come. Many of these folks just thought that Montana would be a neat place to live. Or they’re grapes of wrath passers through.

      I’m not Jesus ferrchrissakes. I have struggled mightily to survive in Montana my entire life. Kinda hard for folks like me to give until it hurts, because I’ve been hurting my whole life. And guess what. I was never able to get one damn dime from the government of any kind. I couldn’t even get unemployment when I lost a job.

      We need to ask the hard questions here. Public schools are on the ropes anyway, for they are asked to do more and more all the time. And WE are being asked to pay for it more and more too. Sumthin’s gonna give some day.

      We all have a right to decide what our state looks like. You could spend our entire freakin’ state budget on these folks, and you’d simply attract more. And then what?

      Start with the basics. The economy. Why? Because it’s the economy stupid. (no insult intended. just using a clintonology) The growing pains the entire state is experiencing must be addressed. Hell, I couldn’t even begin to live in Missoula. It’s gone nuts. Zero planning for a common existence. I would like to do better here in GF. Just as Missoula turns into a city for wealthy outta staters, I don’t want my city to turn into a cesspool of rejects.

      You’re literate, Mary. Remember Ma in the Grapes of Wrath? Well, she let the little ones from neighboring tents lick the spoon. That’s all she had! I’m glad that you feel so generous with our money, but for some of us, all we have to give is a spoon lick!

  • The mission does have overhead; that does not make them bad! They do a good job, but they do pay their employees, as they should.
    I would also like to mention Family Promise of Great Falls which serves homeless children and their families. We too have paid staff, but we also have about 700 volunteers in this generous community. And yes, we have too many homeless people in Great Falls. These stories are real. And these families are not the villains. The situation is complicated. But we must work together to make a difference.

    • Sharo, you missed my point entirely. Firstly, ALL charities usually have about an eighty percent take right off the top for raising money. That is what I meant about no overhead. In other words, if you give a hundred dollars to the cancer society, eighty of that amount goes to the fundraisers. But if I give a hundred dollars to the Mission, it all goes TO the Mission. That is what I meant.

      And no, please do not misinterpret my words. I did not say that anyone was a villain. In a nation of some three hundred and thirty million people, there are going to be lots of homeless. Can we take care of them all here in Montana? No.

      Yes, it’s complicated. But we must look for solutions that are complicated also. Hope you understand. Sometimes, it’s best that folks stay where they’re from so as not to overburden the resources in states like Montana that are ill-prepared to deal with them. We simply don’t have the resources to provide for them, let alone our own homeless populations here in Montana. Are you and Mary really going to criticize me for pointing that out?

  • You need an outlet, Larry, but this site isn’t it. Mary had a sympathetic post on homelessness, with some constructive ideas on how to help people and you have to go all social Darwinist. And ramble much? Keep it short and concise or get your own freakin’ site. I’m tired of your rants.

    • Seriously? I don’t have the right to express an opinion on a topic of great importance? Jesus. No wonder the left is drying up as we speak. For the record, I have worked extensively with the folks who are homeless and at the Mission. I know what I’m talking about. I didn’t get some stats from OPI. I would suggest that you don’t go all limp lizard on me. Regardless of what you think of the Skink, he too has been there.

      Bottom line? Just like all the altreich folks in the Lege, we all DO have a right, nay, a duty to decide what kind of state we want to live in. I would advise against censoring anyone. I’m not going Darwin. When you say that, you show how little you know. I read an article recently by one of LBJ’s adviser who planned the Great Society. Idea was that if you poured enough money into Appalachia, the folks their would improve their lives. But you know what happened? Nuthin’. He said that it had been a huge mistake. The people didn’t want to change. And he was right. We’re NOT going to spend our way out of this crisis. And if you find that an objectionable opinion, you simply don’t understand.

      I know a lot, Pete, because I’ve lived a lot. Allow me to educate you lefties to the real world. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll start winning a few elections!

      • Pete, a peace offering. Things are so ugly now that I find myself spending more and more time in nature, and drinking more and more beer and whiskey in the evening.. I theenk I’ve become a Tarahumara! Or maybe just a Lung Gom Pa. But I also listen to more music in the evening. If you’ve not seen this, enjoy. THIS is the country that I have spent my entire life in. And I love it. The Montana songs are wonderful. Kick back, have a brewski and maybe a shot or two, and think about the Montana of our youth! Hell, you’re from Billings. How many sets of stairs are there up the Rimrocks? I know. Do you?

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RaTqwa-3gI

  • Many people don’t want nor believe these kinds of posts, but welcome to the true America, land of the free……………………..to not help your neighbor. And as long as we allow the intitled 1% run our country into the ground this will continue. Let’s take the country back.

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