homeless walking train tracks
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When Dani was 17 and living in Whitefish, she thought her mom was just leaving town for a couple of weeks. Her parents had separated a few months earlier and she wasn’t in the habit of living with her dad. When her mom went to visit family in California, Dani stayed behind. 

“Being a 17-year-old, I was like, really excited,” said Dani, who is now 19 and asked to be identified by her first name only. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, like I got the place to myself, going to be super fun.’ But in reality, it wasn’t fun at all, and it was actually really traumatic.”

Feeling alone and unsafe, Dani soon moved in with her best friend’s family. According to the federal government’s definition, she was technically homeless. 

Her mom decided to relocate to California permanently, and Dani ended up living with her friend’s family for months, feeling grateful for their support while she navigated her changed reality. 

“Without them, I think I would probably still be homeless, or even worse off than that,” Dani said. “Me seeking them out was what seemed to be really my only option.

Homeless children and youth are officially defined as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including those who are living doubled or tripled-up in another household due to the loss of their own. In Montana, the Office of Public Instruction estimates that 4,709 students fit that category during the last school year, 487 of whom were unaccompanied, i.e., living without their families. In the three years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, that latter figure was even higher, with the statewide number of unaccompanied homeless youth ranging between 694 and 723.

“This is a real problem across the board. Making sure that every kid has a safe, happy, healthy place to be raised? Yeah. We’re not quite there.”

Nichole Heyer, youth homelessness navigator, Montana Legal Services Association 

For decades, Montana’s system of resources for homeless youth and young adults has been devastatingly sparse. One state-contracted report from 2020 found that of 1,315 emergency housing beds available statewide, only 43 were available to youth under the age of 18. 

Many of those shelter programs and group homes are located in the western part of the state and serve specific populations — youth who are pregnant or parenting, for example, or referred for behavioral issues. Some programs have conditions for admission, like drug tests or attending in high school. 

Montana law presents another requirement for residential programs and group homes that serve minors: Participants must either be legally emancipated or have the consent of a parent or guardian in order to stay overnight — hurdles that many youth cannot overcome. A bipartisan effort in the state Legislature to change that statute failed by one vote in 2021.

Given the multiple restrictions, many local service providers are using creative methods to help homeless youth and young adults, including hiring staff to help kids find shelter and appealing directly to landlords willing to rent to certain tenants. Progress, providers say, is often laborious and incremental.

“This is a real problem across the board,” said Nichole Heyer, a youth homelessness navigator at Montana Legal Services Association. “Making sure that every kid has a safe, happy, healthy place to be raised? Yeah. We’re not quite there.”

FEDERAL MONEY, LOCAL EXPERIMENTS

In 2019, under the Trump administration, Montana received roughly $3.4 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help create a range of housing options for homeless youth across the state. The program is known as the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, or YHDP. 

That money has since been distributed to 12 grantees around Montana, creating a cohort of providers working toward the same goal in distinct ways. Dawson Community College in Glendive, for example, is providing homeless youth with year-round campus housing while they work toward completing a two-year college program of their choice — the goal is to help participants leave the program debt-free with a degree in hand. Tumbleweed, a Billings organization that serves runaway and homeless youth, has added a staff member to help youth navigate the systems of available services. Missoula’s Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) is using its grant money to help young adults pay for affordable housing units, which often involves staff members convincing landlords to rent to people with marginal income and no credit history. 

The diversity and range of programs is in line with HUD’s vision for the program, said Keegan Flaherty, who coordinates Montana’s YHDP through a contract with the state’s Continuum of Care Coalition. She said the grant program approaches youth homelessness with a see-what-works mentality.

“It’s a demonstration program. That means no one knows what they’re doing,” said Flaherty, who also emphasized the invaluable experience of the service providers who became YHDP grantees. “Everyone’s just trying.”

Taken together, the YHDP grantees are working on more than a dozen projects to target youth homelessness. They aim to identify and create 45 additional beds for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, ranging from transitional housing options to more permanent placements.

“Youth engagement, equity, focusing on special populations, is new for a lot of service providers. They’re aware of it, but they have never had funding, that I’m aware of, that’s so specific. Like, ‘you have to do these things.’”

Keegan Flaherty, Montana Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program coordinator

Though each provider is trying its own approach, YHDP grantees are organized around a common set of principles outlined by HUD. Among them: Grantees must work with youth partners in developing their services and be trauma-informed to support particularly at-risk demographics, including Indigenous people and LGBTQ youth. 

Because of these requirements, Montana’s YHDP includes a paid advisory board of young people who have experienced homelessness. Dani is one of the current members. Since January 2021, the youth board has given feedback on how the grantees can strengthen their services. Among their recommendations, the youth advisers have suggested modifying intake forms to communicate respect and care for the young people seeking services.

“If you’re already in a bad situation, having somebody treat you lesser doesn’t make you feel good,” said L., a member of the advisory board from Billings who asked to be identified by her first initial to maintain her privacy. “It kind of just keeps those barriers up.”

Another HUD requirement is that providers sign on to a “housing first” philosophy — meaning their housing programs have a low barrier or no barrier to participation. In theory, grantees would be prohibited from requiring drug tests, sobriety, high school enrollment or any other standard for young people seeking services. 

“Youth engagement, equity, focusing on special populations, is new for a lot of service providers,” Flaherty said. “They’re aware of it, but they have never had funding, that I’m aware of, that’s so specific. Like, ‘you have to do these things.’”

Though complying with the red tape of a federal program may be arduous for providers, Flaherty said it’s driven by a purpose: making services actually work for young people who are looking for an open door.

THE AFFORDABILITY HURDLE

Advocates for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness consistently point to affordable housing as a key resource that is lacking. In other words, providers are looking for landlords, developers and property managers who are willing to rent to the young adults in their programs, many of whom are receiving financial support from the nonprofit grantee.

“I think that if we had more units, I think we would be able to serve more youth,” said Kristen Chambers, who oversees programs for homeless youth at Action Inc. The Butte-based organization has recently begun leasing six apartments for youth age 18 to 24 through one landlord on the private market. 

Without more affordable apartments tailored to the need, providers said, the obstacle course for low-income youth and young adults will only continue. In increasingly expensive cities like Missoula and Bozeman, helping young people elbow their way into the competitive housing markets can seem like a Sisyphean task. Providers say that’s partly because of stigma.

“I think there’s a lot of judgment on youth and young adults,” said Christina Dunbar, a housing navigator with Missoula’s HRDC. “Like, ‘Oh, well, they’re just lazy and they’re not working.’ No, they’re making $14 an hour and rent is 70% of their income.” Whereas some young people might be able to rely on family for financial support, Dunbar said, youth in her program “don’t have any of that.”

As affordable housing units and cooperative landlords remain scarce, many youth and young adults are left to couch surf with friends or partners. That might offer young people temporary stability, but such living situations can also introduce them to more risk. 

L., the Billings-based member of the youth advisory board, stayed with extended family and romantic partners after her parents told her to move out when she was 18. While she had a roof over her head, L. said many of her living situations were filled with domestic violence, forcing her to jump “from one to another to another.” 

“I think there’s a lot of judgment on youth and young adults. Like, ‘Oh, well, they’re just lazy and they’re not working.’ No, they’re making $14 an hour and rent is 70% of their income.”

Christina Dunbar, housing navigator, Missoula Human Resource Development Council

Now the mother of a 6-month-old baby, L. is employed and living in temporary housing for low-income people who are pregnant or parenting. Becoming a mom, she said, has only increased her motivation to find stable housing. Her goal is to eventually become a homeowner.

Many providers have come to expect that young people in their programs have been through similar rollercoasters in their quest to find housing. While no two situations are identical, providers often understand homelessness as an origin point for other traumatic experiences — the first domino in a series of destabilizing events. Whenever a provider intersects with a young person, Flaherty said, the goal is to make their period of hardship as brief as possible. 

“If someone is housing insecure or homeless at a young age, let’s stop it now,” Flaherty said. “So in the future it doesn’t happen again.”

EVERYBODY’S PROBLEM

Providers and advocates repeatedly described youth homelessness as an issue that’s relevant to Montana as a whole, in part because of how entangled the issue is with other social problems.

Nationwide, Black and Indigenous youth experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates, as do people who identify as LGBTQ. Youth who have been engaged in the foster care system also have an increased likelihood of experiencing homelessness. 

The National Network for Youth, a policy research and advocacy group, also describes the link between youth homelessness and the criminal legal system as a “two-way relationship” in which young people are at increased risk of arrest. Homelessness can funnel people into other dangerous situations as well — many young people who have been trafficked for sex identify themselves as former runaways.

Advocates say interfering with these pipelines, and preventing youth from entering them in the first place, requires engagement from all corners of a community and all levels of government. 

“It takes a village to raise a kid, right?” Flaherty said. “And it takes a village to wrap their arms around someone who’s in crisis.”

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Mara Silvers covers Montana state politics and policy, including the Legislature and the courts. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.