The number of homeless young people in Billings is “escalating well past the expected increase in overall population,” according to a final report issued recently by the organizers of a survey of homeless youth last summer.
The authors of the 2013 Youth Count! Report, the result of a survey in Billings last summer, also say that youth make up 28 percent of the overall homeless population in Montana’s largest city.
“Many of these children have families, but some do not,” the report states. “Some live with neighbors and friends, but without a support network, many are forced to live on the streets.”
The report is authored by AmericaCorps VISTA members Joshua J. Downes and Chelsia Davis and Brenda Beckett, community development manager for the City of Billings.
Downes and Davis started working on the project with Tumbleweed Runaway Program, a drop-in center for homeless youth, about a year ago. Last July, they led a team of volunteers in a survey of homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 21. Their 60-plus page report includes data collected from that and other surveys and reports.
Nailing down the exact number of homeless youth in Billings is an elusive task for a variety of reasons, but by all accounts the group numbers in the hundreds.
School District 2 identified 560 students who had experienced homelessness in 2012-2013, not including young children, drop-outs or homeschooled youth, according to the report; a Billings point-in-time survey last year indicated 225 children experiencing homelessness; and Tumbleweed serves about 600 young people a year.
Davis and Downes analyzed in-depth data from about 100 young people.
One of the first things that stood out from results of their 42-question survey, the authors say, is that “resolution of family conflict is the most significant need and life barrier identified by youth and young adults in Billings.”
Coupled with family conflict — one girl who took the survey said “I need a family, just not mine” — the homeless youth have difficulty accessing basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing, according to the report.
“Since many of respondents report not having experienced support at home, the community needs to recognize this first and foremost with compassionate understanding,” the authors say.
They found that some of the young people lack even a place to shower on a regular basis, and that others have “suffered sexual abuse, have traded sexual favors for basic needs, and have health and dental related concerns without the means to seek proper care.”
Downes and Davis call for increased funding of alternative programs for youth, more cooperation and coordination between existing services for homeless youth and for local agencies and services to “develop additional programs structured for youth to learn and practice a path for self-reliance.”
In addition to collecting and analyzing data on homeless youth, Downes and Davis have said their year-long project is intended to create a blueprint for similar surveys in the future.
Their efforts attracted national attention: They were selected to be one of about 55 groups presenting similar projects at the National Runaway Homeless Youth conference in Atlanta last November.