Homelessness In Our Communities
By Jenny Sheets
An on-line search for “number of homeless people in the United States” will not yield an easy answer because the topic of homelessness is far from an easy issue. Estimated numbers of those living without a structured home vary from 700,000 to 3.5 million depending on definition. As far as most are concerned the numbers are irrelevant; even one is too many.
To fall under the category of “homeless” one need not sleep under a bridge or move in and out of a shelter. In fact much homelessness is hidden and can look like a long-term hotel room, a family member’s couch, or an ill-equipped space, such as a trailer without water or heat. The National Coalition for The Homeless explains why defining the term is so difficult, stating that, “homelessness is a temporary circumstance, not a permanent condition. A more appropriate measure of the magnitude of homelessness is the number of people who experience homelessness over time, not the number of “homeless people.” But defining homelessness is only the tip of the iceberg. Reasons for homelessness range from financial struggles to mental illness, addiction, domestic abuse, and much more. A shocking report from Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Billings found that 28 percent of the homeless in Billings were between the ages of 13-21, youth kicked out of their home with no families to turn to for help. Reports also show that somewhere between 30-50 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transsexual or transgendered – many of whom were forced to leave their home when they came out to their families.
Reasons for homelessness can often go unnoticed when people are seen holding signs on a daily basis, or young adults seem ‘tough,’ and self-sufficient. The ‘street,’ or being homeless, can be a rough place where reports of theft, violence, and rape are not uncommon. When protecting one’s belongings becomes the utmost importance, and survival literally becomes life or death, it’s easy for someone who is homeless to hang in the shadows and, as a result, fall further from services and help. A club in Kalispell has opened its doors to homeless youth who would otherwise be wandering the streets attracting the attention of police officers. Many of these kids have been kicked out of their homes, have been in trouble with the law, or pushed around foster care homes – all of which may create a lack of stability, feelings of abandonment, and distrust in authority. In some cases, these kids and homeless youth in general have been pegged, “throwaway kids” – youth driven from home against their will.
Larger cities experience higher levels of homelessness due to population size as well as a greater number of available resources. Cities in Montana like Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings see a higher number of those in need than smaller towns in the state and have been working diligently this winter to get people out of the cold and into safe, warm shelters. Exposure can be life threatening, making the need for a consistent warm home all the more important. Some facilities are open year round like The Poverello Center in Missoula, which saw over 120 people in one frigid night in December, while others operate only during the winter months such as The Warming Center in Bozeman. Other centers like Tumbleweed in Billings go so far as to actively seek out homeless youth and families on the streets to educate them about Tumbleweed’s shelter and services. But despite the ongoing effort, the shelters and resources simply cannot keep up with the need. There are still homeless adults, families, and youth on the streets every night of the year. Debbie Schenk, a board member for Tumbleweed and Interchange, explains that people walk all night just to stay warm and stay alive, especially youth who are often not allowed into adult-only shelters. She also knows of one young man in Billings who may lose several fingers this winter from frostbite due to wandering the cold streets at night because he had nowhere else to go.
All of these services have staff and volunteers working persistently and passionately but are constantly stricken by budget woes. Be it a lack of money or a political move, (that’s a conversation for a different day,) there just simply isn’t enough cash or space to cover the need. Get involved by donating to your local shelter or local non-profits that are working hard to protect and serve the homeless. Volunteer to serve meals or clean beds, or simply get involved by educating yourself and others about the severity of homelessness. The chances are unfortunately high that we all know a homeless person but are unaware of their situation. Reach out and help. These people are our neighbors, our community members, our coworkers, and our friends.
Get Active! Get Involved!
- Protecting the civil rights of homeless
- Warm, safe temporary housing
- Get help if you or someone you know is homeless
- Counseling available