Sheri Boelter, executive director of the Tumbleweed program, which works with homeless youth, calls them Billings’ “purposefully invisible” population.
They often don’t want to be found by local social services, aren’t eligible for them or don’t want them or aren’t even considered homeless by some surveys.
And there’s a good chance they are vastly undercounted.
“Our community has no idea how many kids we have that are homeless, that are trying to raise themselves,” Boelter said. “We had one year where a survey said (there were) four homeless youth (in Billings), yet we served here 600 of them.”
In an effort to get a better idea of exactly how many homeless youth are actually in Billings, a pair of Americorps VISTA volunteers have teamed up with Tumbleweed and other local services to take a point-in-time survey this week that they hope will not only give a more definitive count, but also shed light on needed services.
The VISTA volunteers — Joshua Downes and Chelsia Davis — and more than 20 local volunteers plan to conduct a focused canvas of much of Billings for the Youth Count! Point-In-Time survey Friday through Sunday.
“It’s not just the typical demographic survey, even though we’re doing that, too,” Davis said. “We’re looking at information about their lives. Where did they sleep last night? What do they need?”
Davis and Downes spent months researching homeless and youth demographics in Billings while carefully crafting the 42-question survey.
A big consideration in creating the new survey is that local officials believe that homeless youth are underrepresented locally in surveys.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has conducted similar point-in-time surveys, which ask all respondents to answer questions in relation to the same specific date.
The problem, Downes said, is that those surveys don’t count youth who might have precarious living situations, such as those who couch surf or bounce from friend’s house to friend’s house, which the new one will. It also considers those living with someone else other than a legal guardian and who can’t be considered the head of their household.
It will follow a model set by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which includes youth aged 13-21 who are “literally and precariously homeless.”
Also, the HUD surveys are usually conducted in January, when many potentially homeless youth aren’t on the street and aren’t likely to arrive at the survey sites.
“I think it can be really hard for people to understand what the youth are going through,” Downes said. “It’s a lot closer to home than people think.”
Boelter said she expects the broadened definition of homeless youth used for the survey — which will span five designated zones and dozens of pre-identified spots youth are likely to frequent in Billings — to show that there are many, many more youngsters dealing with or facing homelessness than previously reported, up from dozens to possibly hundreds.
“Our numbers here are huge,” she said. “We have a huge homeless youth problem here and it’s just not seen.”
When the survey wraps up, it will take Downes and Davis several months to compile and analyze all of the information. Once that’s complete, officials who work with the city’s homeless populations, including Boelter, have high hopes.
The new numbers could help local organizations like Tumbleweed be more competitive in the already very competitive pursuit of grants from national organizations and federal agencies, which in turn means they can provide more and better services using those funds.
“A place like Billings, it’s tough to compete with a town like Seattle,” Davis said.
“With this data, we might be able to receive more funding and we can tailor our programs to better fit their needs.”
Beyond that, the survey looks to dig a little deeper into the lives of the homeless youth in an effort to find out how they feel about their situations and the services available to them, as well as why they’re homeless.
“We need to kill the myth that homeless kids that run away from home are the ones that just don’t want to follow the rules,” Boelter said.
“That might be the case for a small percentage, but chemical dependency issues at home are a much bigger issue. Ninety-eight percent of our kids (who work with Tumbleweed) come from homes with a chemical-dependent caregiver.”
Downes also described the effort as a way that the affected youth in Billings can be heard by the larger community.
“Our survey is going to be our youths’ mouthpiece,” he said. “I want people to understand what they’re going through because I think a lot of people have a really limited picture of homeless and at-risk youth.”
Davis continued: “If they’re having struggles now, it’s not like they’re just going to magically get better the moment they turn 18.
“It’s about getting them access to those resources. If we can provide those resources to them in a safe, comfortable way, that’s really important.”
While Davis and Downes will finish up their VISTA service by early 2014, Boelter said they’ve laid the groundwork and established a system of accounting for the homeless youth population that the community will be able to use for years to come.
“It’s a city project,” she said. “The whole community will benefit from this and they paved the way for that. It’s in place now.”
The Billings Community Foundation awarded Tumbleweed and the VISTA volunteers a $1,000 grant to get the program up and running.