There are about 175 children in the Great Falls Public School District without a place to call home. School officials believe that number could actually be much higher, but those students have yet to come forward.
Every year the number of children on the homeless list rises. It could be the economy, family problems, or a combination of a lot of things. The lack of affordable housing is one common denominator. Lee Houle, Homeless Coordinator for the district, explains that with just the oil boom in eastern Montana, the price of rent has tripled. He says affordable housing is a common problem in Great Falls as well.
There are a various types of homelessness. Houle says the majority of students are in a doubled up situation where they are living with friends or family members. There are also children living in cars, motels, in inadequate housing without heat or running water, and those in shelters. Houle says the Great Falls Rescue Mission is at full capacity and has been for the last two years.
Seventeen year old Dakota Highpine lived in a motel for two years, but was kicked out when his mother went to jail. He says, “I didn’t know what to eat, didn’t know where to go”. So the 10th Ave. bridge became his home for two months. He explains, “I’d go under the bridge and just sit there”. Although, it appears someone else has moved in recently.
With multiple family members in jail, he felt those he could reach out to had their own problems. He says, “I didn’t want everyone to feel like they weren’t helping me”. Instead, he kept his homelessness a secret. He says being homeless “just feels like you're empty on the inside. Don’t have no one to care. No one there”.
However, school provided some relief. He explains, “that was the only time I got to eat was lunch”. Houle describes school as a way to provide at least 6 hours of stability where they have people like teachers, meals, and a warm safe environment that they can count on. Dakota says, “all my friends made me feel happy”.
Yet, living with such a big secret can take its toll. Dakota explains, “I used to get so overwhelmed, I’d get mad and walk out of class. I didn’t care about anything”. School staff says a lot of homeless students academic and behavior problems are actually a side effect for the trauma they are going through. Houle says, “we might have Einstein capable students that don’t even know it”.
Things are looking up for Dakota. He’s living with his Grandma now that she and his mom are both out of jail. Dakota says, “I feel a lot better now because I have somewhere to stay. I have a bed”.
School counselors expect there are at least 400 children in the district without a place to call home. Dakota advises them talk to someone and focus on the positive. He says, “there’s always a new day coming on so never really get scared and think about what you have in your life now”.
Although being homeless can be a traumatic event, Dakota has learned a lot. He explains, “if I had a kid, I’d never give up on them, never really walk away, never really try to get in trouble and go to jail. I’d try to be a man and do what I’m supposed to do”.
Many students do not come forward out of embarrassment or fear the state will take them away from their families. The school district can help with things like transportation, food, clothing, and finding a place off the streets. Call Houle at 406-268-6607 for more information on school services.