by Zachary DeWolf , Director of Communications & Education at the Pride Foundation
Pride Foundation, along with co-hosts Empower MT and Poverello Center, organized the first-ever Montana Youth Homelessness Summit. Special guests included Governor Steve Bullock and the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) Superintendent Denise Juneau.
The summit’s focus was to support unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness and to build awareness of the factors leading to and the disproportionate impact of homelessness, with a special focus on youth of color, Native American youth, and LGBTQ youth.
Earlier this year, the Montana OPI reported that in 2010-2011, the state’s school districts identified a total of 1,487 students experiencing homelessness in their classrooms. That number skyrocketed to 3,000 students experiencing homelessness in the 2015-2016.
This shocking report, as well as the need to explore and coordinate the work that is already being done throughout the state—was the impetus for this week’s summit.
One possible explanation for increasing rates of youth homelessness is improved identification and reporting procedures within school districts and the state government. However, one thing remains clear—there are Montana youth experiencing homelessness in every community and there is a disproportionate impact on youth of color and LGBTQ youth.
A highlight during the summit was a panel of youth experiencing homelessness who shared powerful stories about the issues they’ve faced.
Christopher, a young man living in Helena, told participants that he implored his parents to see his true identity. They wouldn’t accept him as a man, and it was at that time they kicked him out of his home. It’s been a difficult journey for Chris to find supportive and stable housing. “Montana can do better, and that’s why we’re here today. We have an obligation to ensure no Montanan is left without food, safety, or a roof over their head. We must break down the barriers that prevent LGBTQ youth from succeeding,” said Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
“Students should feel confident that their teachers, mentors, and school leaders will protect their rights and support their needs. Montana Public Schools take this mission seriously, and they’re working each day to create a learning environment that supports all students—gay or straight, rich or poor, high achievers or those who struggle in ways many of us can’t understand,” said Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“Last week’s summit put a spotlight on the good work being done across the state on behalf of youth experiencing homelessness—connecting the diverse efforts and systems responsible for youth who are unstably housed, and highlighting service gaps,” said Pride Foundation CEO Kris Hermanns. “Many thoughtful, innovative ideas and solutions were identified as a result of the sessions and discussions. We are eager to continue partnering with the various stakeholders and advocates to carry the momentum forward and build a coordinated and strategic response to this crisis in Montana.”
The summit participants represented school districts, the Office of Higher Education, legislators, school-based educators and counselors, funders, and community providers, all of whom engaged in conversations about the current local and national landscape, promising programs and strategies, and the importance of centering youth experiences when creating solutions.
Near the end of the panel of youth experiencing homelessness, a young adult named Alex spoke about the importance of human connection and sharing ones stories, explaining, “You’re thanking us. But we should be thanking you—you wanted to learn and listen. You showed up— thank you. You’ve helped me not feel so alone.”
Pride Foundation is a regional community foundation that inspires giving to expand opportunities and advance full equality for LGBTQ people across the Northwest. Learn more at www.pridefoundation.org.