- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The number of homeless public school students in Helena is rising.

The Helena Independent-Record reports (https://bit.ly/13rKXF1 ) that there are 136 homeless students attending Helena public schools this year. That’s up from 20 in the 2008-2009 school year.

Federal law defines homeless children and youths as those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

“One of the things I think would surprise a lot of people in our community is the number of homeless kids,” said Jim McGrane, a counselor at Helena Middle School.

The number of homeless students includes children and teens living in shelters, hotels and cars or sleeping on couches, in parks and on public land.

Brian Johnson, executive director of the United Way of the Lewis & Clark Area, said he believes the increase in the reported number of homeless students reflects the increased effort to count them all.

“We haven’t had that much of an increase in students that are experiencing a homeless situation, we’ve just started counting them better,” Johnson said.

Still, McGrane said, it’s hard to get an accurate count. Counselors rely on forms families fill in at the beginning of the year. Sometimes the address they list serves as a red flag that the student may not have a home.

McGrane said the district is working to add an option that will allow families to acknowledge if they are struggling. But that’s something some don’t want to reveal, he said.

In recent years, Montana schools have become more aware of the struggles facing students who don’t have a safe or consistent place to stay. For instance, counselors keep an eye on the academic standings of homeless students, McGrane said.

If a student is struggling, counselors and teachers work to get them up to speed, McGrane said. Tutoring opportunities are also available.

Overall, 1.72 percent of Helena students are homeless, according to district figures. Classified according to federal and state guidelines, 27.7 percent of the homeless students in Helena live in shelters. Due to economic hardship, loss of housing or other factors, 61.3 percent of homeless students share a residence with another family.

Students living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings or other unsheltered areas make up 0.7 percent of the homeless student population. Hotels or motels house 8 percent. Counselors have not identified where 2.2 percent of the 136 homeless students live.

Helena public schools receive federal funds to help educate homeless students. The district also benefits from the Angel Fund’s Stuff the Bus Campaign, an effort every summer in Helena to collect school supplies for children in need.

Pam Campbell, a counselor at Bryant Elementary, said these supplies help fulfill needs.

“When you’re packing all your stuff in a couple of garbage bags, you often don’t have room for crayons and scissors and that type of stuff,” she said.

Students identified as homeless immediately qualify for free and reduced lunch, Campbell said. Students who become homeless after the first day of school can continue at the same school, even if they move.

The school district’s transportation system will pick the student up wherever he or she is sleeping and take them to school.

But the school district can’t fill the biggest need: housing. There is not enough shelter or affordable housing in Helena, forcing some families to share a residence, Campbell said.

“Those are the families that fall between the cracks, because they’re not hooked up with an agency,” Campbell said. “The myth is that homeless people are men and they’re veterans, you know, or mentally ill; (in reality) the fastest growing segment of homeless is families.”

For Mark Scarff, a parking enforcement officer with the city, helping homeless youth is personal. For the last five or six years, Scarff and his wife have let homeless students stay in their home.

Scarff adopted two homeless boys years ago. His sons’ friends knew Scarff’s house was a safe place to stay, so they would often come to spend the night.

Scarff would house them. Sometimes for a night, but sometimes for months.

“Maybe our biggest challenge is to understand these kids aren’t bad by choice or homeless by choice, circumstance played a huge part in putting them there,” he said.

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Information from: Independent Record, https://www.helenair.com


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