by J.B. Chandler

Algebra and Chemistry are tough enough without having to worry about a place to sleep. In Montana, the reality is that over 4,000 Montana students are homeless. That’s nearly two percent of the statewide student body. In our larger cities, organizations like Missoula Youth Homes and the Rescue Missions in Great Falls and Billings can be outlets for shelter, school supplies, and food. As Montana has grown, so too has the homeless student population. In Billings, it has ballooned from 100 in 2003 to almost 700 today. The Rescue Mission in Great Falls has recently built a new Cameron Family Center to help families in need. Therese Martinez is the director of this new building and oversees the transition for these many families.

“We should’ve built it bigger,” she says.

Martinez loves the new building and everything it offers, but the Rescue Mission still has to send away needy families. It’s easy to see why people seek help from the Rescue Mission with their many outlets for assistance—working toward housing vouchers, seeking a faith-based support system, offering a variety of classes to help educate the patrons. The Rescue Mission wants to teach others to fish, not simply hand fish out. The atmosphere of learning has a trickledown effect at the Cameron Family Center. The parents want to better themselves. Same goes for their children. The Rescue Mission lines up tutors and other resources to see them succeed. When one student wished to continue playing football, the Rescue Mission helped with forms, physicals, and equipment costs.

The question invariably needs to be asked about the cost per patron. These programs are paid for by private entities, not with taxes. This allows the Rescue Mission to focus on what works, instead of what the government wants.

The reach of the Great Falls Rescue Mission can be quite large. From the Canadian border to the North Dakota border, the Rescue Mission in Great Falls works with foster parents, police officers, and school districts to help with the homelessness problems across northern Montana.

In rural areas the problems are two-fold. The homeless can be harder to find, so the corresponding federal resources are scant. Small towns work together, so homeless kids stay at Grandmas or at a friend’s house. For better or worse, those students have missed the count, so their schools are unable to get the resources they may need.

The federal definition of homelessness is anyone who is without regular overnight accommodations. This broad definition includes those awaiting placement in foster care, a family living in a car or in a campground, and those couch surfing between relatives.

The weather is cold, but our hearts are warm in the Montana winter, and in small towns, family takes care of family. In Browning, they have a name for it: āissṗoōmmoǒtsiiyō•ṗ, which means “we help each other.”

By offering school supplies and weekend food backpacks, schools can better recognize those who are in need and get the federal funding to help with these projects.

As small-town Montana has gotten better about reporting homeless students, it has resulted in a huge percentage increase in documented homelessness. In the past 5 years, the rural homelessness rate in Montana has increased over 100 percent! But it’s not like those students weren’t homeless before. In Poplar, Rocky Boy, Wyola, and Lame Deer they reported zero students as homeless in 2012. Together, they reported over 600 homeless students last year—a staggering total that should give all Montanans pause. Fortunately, these school districts are getting help to better assist these students, but the solutions seem further away. Creating a more stable economy in these areas has been a work-in-progress for the past 100 years. Montana needs to come together to work on wealth inequality issues to help stem the tide of rural homelessness.

So how can you help? Volunteering at a local homeless shelter is a start. The Rescue Missions in Great Falls, Billings, and Butte all need help, as well as Missoula Youth Homes. Helping with after school programs or at the local food bank is another idea. But the best way for anybody to help with homelessness in Montana is to become a foster parent. Room, board, and perhaps some help with their Algebra homework, can change a homeless student’s life.

Therese Martinez says, “Along with a strong, faith-based support system, the best way to solve this is to get to the root of the problems.”

Each case is unique, and each solution is individualized, yet the goal remains the same. Everyone needs a home.