In Great Falls, more than 475 children experience homelessness each year.
It’s a heartbreaking statistic—one that the community is working to address. Thomas Risberg, Development Director of Alliance for Youth, says that the first step is to personalize the problem.
“These are children who go to school with your children. These are kids in your community. Your property values, labor force, crime rates, health care, and criminal justice spending are all impacted by what we do right now,” he says.
Studies show that after twenty years of age, many homeless people develop an internal sense of powerlessness. By intervening early, we can fundamentally change the trajectory of a young person’s life.
“If you give them the raw materials, they can turn their lives around, but they need help,” says Risberg.
Risberg is passionate about his work with Alliance for Youth for many reasons. For one, he has experienced powerlessness in his own life. In 2017, he traveled from Missouri to the Rocky Mountain Treatment Center in Great Falls for help with his alcohol addiction. Through his recovery, he was introduced to Alliance for Youth and started a program called The Sober Life, which provides free fitness activities, family friendly events, and volunteer opportunities to people recovering from addiction and alcoholism. This year, he helped start the Youth Resource Center, which opened in May and aims to provide immediate assistance and guidance to homeless children in the community.
“I taught fifth grade, and I’m a firm believer that education is key to upward mobility,” says Risberg. “If you have an empty stomach, no shelter, no clothes, you’re never going to care about an education. The problem isn’t a lack of intelligence or work ethic; it’s a lack of resources.”
When homeless kids come to the Youth Resource Center, they are provided immediate assistance. No paperwork. No judgement.
“Social services can be a logistical nightmare for kids who just need to find something to eat or a safe place to sleep. If you ask them to fill out a long application or undergo diagnosis, you’re going to lose them,” Risberg explains. “We provide them with a safe, warm, loving environment. They have access to food, clothing, laundry facilities, showers—we take care of their immediate needs and then work with them one-on-one to develop goals and help them achieve them.”
It should be noted that the Youth Resource Center helps “kids” up to age twenty, the reason being that many young adults under 21 fall between the cracks. Risberg says he is a big believer in what he describes as “latent human potential.” He has seen that with basic resources and a little compassion, young people can break the cycle of homelessness, addiction, and abuse.
“We are seeing kids who were homeless attending college. There are early signs that this program works,” says Risberg. “This is not an unstoppable downward trend.”
For our young citizens to thrive, we cannot give up on them. It is unacceptable to write any child off as a lost cause. The future of Montana is whatever we pass down to our young people. Let us give them the tools to succeed and the compassion to make Montana a state worth living in.
The Youth Resource Center is located at 3220 11th Avenue South in Great Falls. For more information, visit allianceforyouth.org or call (406) 952-0018.