A recent report trumpeted an alarming statistic; Montana has seen its homeless more than double among rural students in a four year period.
By the numbers counted, it has. But many school districts weren’t counting in the past.
For example, 200 homeless students did not suddenly appear in Lame Deer two years ago. Nor were there no homeless students in Hardin in 2016. And more than 150 homeless students didn’t arrive overnight in Poplar.
The districts simply started counting.
That’s not to say student homelessness isn’t increasing, or decreasing. Reporting issues, especially in rural communities, make it hard to tell.
But rural communities now appear to be following a path already trodden by some of Montana’s urban schools. For example, actual student homelessness in Billings didn’t increase six-fold during the 2000s, from 100 students in 2003 to a peak of about 640 student two years ago. The district got better at finding and documenting homelessness.
Student homelessness, as it’s defined by the federal government, includes a variety of circumstances. Kids might be bouncing between relatives, living in a shelter, couch surfing among friends or living with their family in unstable housing like motels, or in a place without electricity or running water.
“It’s not just a matter of finding a place to live; it's other issues in their life,” like addiction, mental illness, and family dysfunction, said Billings Public Schools homeless student coordinator Sue Runkle.
That’s part of why counting students is important; if they aren’t identified under federal law, they can miss out on support required by that law, and any additional resources that schools offer.
“There’s a direct correlation between these conditions and how well a student is able to learn,” said Hardin superintendent Chad Johnson. “I think these students need support.”
Hardin has upped its effort to identify homeless students. The district reported none until the 2017-2018 school year — the most recent year of publicly available data — when it reported 11 homeless high school students.
Johnson hesitated to estimate what the figure would be this year, but said it’s fair to assume that 11 students is a significant undercount.
Homeless students are often referred to as “invisible” or “hidden in plain sight.” The new report on rural homelessness argues students in small towns can be even more marginalized.
“Public policy on homelessness centers around these metropolitan areas, ultimately leaving rural homeless students undercounted and underserved,” the report from The Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness says.
Hardin doesn’t meet the report’s definition of rural. But Lame Deer, Poplar, Heart Butte, Wyola, and Rocky Boy all do. None of those districts reported any homeless students 3 years ago. Last school year, they combined to report 585 homeless students.
“A lot of the reservations are coming on board,” said Heather Denny, the Office of Public Instruction’s homeless education coordinator.
That doesn’t mean that schools were always oblivious.
“I think classroom teachers always kind of knew kids were homeless, but they didn’t know they qualify for a federal program,” Denny said.
Montana schools received between $170,000 and $200,000 in federal money doled out by state officials to combat student homelessness, sometimes supplemented by additional federal money to aid students in poverty. Grants went out to 17 schools during that time period, ranging from $700 to $61,000.
Most of the money goes to school districts in Montana’s cities, where most homeless students attend school. Billings alone documented 530 homeless students last year.
As rural homeless become better documented, the ICPH report argues not enough money is being funneled to rural schools.
Denny said Montana has shifted money to meet needs of rural districts. The grant history shows more rural schools have gotten money, but others have dropped out.
Lame Deer received its first grant of $6,650 for the 2017-2018 school year. This year, that amount roughly doubled. Evergreen Elementary, a K-8 district near Kalispell, received its first grant of $1,850 for the 2013-2014 school year; it received almost $5,000 this year.
But Sidney, after getting a grant for five years in a row, stopped applying two years ago as the Bakken boom waned. Wyola received a grant last school year, but didn’t apply this school year.
The most consistent rural district has been Browning, which received its first grant in 2012. The district got $17,160 this school year, but it’s also aggressive in its pursuit of other aid.
What’s in a name
Browning is a prime example of the complex nature of student homelessness. The vast majority of homeless students are doubled up and living with relatives or friends.
“Browning’s too windy and cold to be living outside, so family, they bring them in,” said Browning counselor Nikki Hannon.
Determining whether a student qualifies as homeless can be tricky, and students aren’t always willing to open up about their life outside of school.
Browning’s services are accessible to any student in the district, but are designed to help homeless students the most. Schools have food pantries, mini-clothing closets, stashes of school supplies — whatever a student needs for school they might not be able to afford.
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“They might come in looking for a backpack or a pencil, but you can use that to build a relationship with them,” Hannon said.
The state grant money goes toward anything that, like weekend food backpacks, can address student homelessness directly. But Browning also uses a grant from Town Pump and has lined up consistent clothing donations.
“I was really surprised by the amount of resources we could access,” Hannon said.
The district has also tried to address any stigma associated with the program. In Montana, programs are often referred to as “families in transition.”
Browning adopted a Blackfeet term — āissṗoōmmoǒtsiiyō•ṗ — that best translates to, “we help each other.”
The district has done training with OPI about student homelessness, and has trained counselors and other staff. But it’s still often classroom teachers who see the first red flags. Browning focuses on funneling any questions to its best-trained staff in each school.
“If (teachers) aren’t sure, they know who to call now,” Hannon said.
Training about homeless students can still be a problem.
Melissa Sullivan-Walker has been an assistant professor at Montana State University Billings since 2017. She studied homeless student training in schools for her dissertation in North Carolina.
“Basically what I found was that homeless education personnel, such as social workers, school counselors, the people who are much more involved with the homelessness side, who are more informed about it, feel like they are providing supports to teachers,” she said. “(But) the teachers that I spoke to felt like they were not getting support.”
Conversely, when staff like social workers or counselors provide training to teachers, they feel like it isn’t sinking in.
“There’s some sort of disconnect there,” Walker said.
Walker is quick to note that her research wasn’t in Montana. But educational trends often have relevance across the country.
Federal privacy laws often limit information sharing about student homeless, even within schools. In some cases, there are reasons for that; revealing personal information about students can be not only a legal but an ethical breach of privacy.
“My argument actually is not necessarily for that information sharing entirely, it’s more about teachers being prepared and understanding what some of the warning signs are, what some of the red flags might be, and what some of the most effective ways they can serve those students are,” Walker said.
For example, whether a teacher knows that a student is homeless for sure, if they suspect it, they could be more conscious of homework assignments for that student, recognizing that they might not have access to a computer or basic school supplies outside of school, or even a quiet place to work.
She believes that educators need more training that includes all of counselors, teachers, social workers and administrators, and that they need it in college before they're dealing with a classroom full of students.
“I think putting them out in schools and saying, 'OK, now collaborate,' it’s not going to work, and it’s too late,” she said.
There’s also a major social and emotional component for educators to consider. Homeless students are more likely to encounter childhood trauma, which can lead to behavioral challenges and increase stress and anxiety.
In some cases, it might be tweaks like recognizing that a “buddy system” among classmates might have a greater effect for a homeless student.
“Some of the stuff that teachers will do anyway … is applying that to students experiencing homeless or students in foster care,” Walker said.
Billings had its first drop in documented student homelessness this decade last school year.
Part of that was a change in the federal definition of student homelessness, but it wouldn’t account for the full drop, Runkle said. She wasn’t sure why there was a drop.
One explanation could be that after years of increases, Billings has gotten good enough at identifying homeless students that it’s nearing the actual number of homeless students.
Runkle was skeptical that actually homelessness in Billings would be on a downward trend; more likely, it could be ticking up.
“I think that some of the families have more obstacles to overcome than in previous years,” she said, citing issues like drug use and domestic abuse. Meth crime has been on the rise in Montana for several years.
Addressing issues like childhood trauma often require wide-scale approaches like trauma-informed teacher, as well as access to medical services for mental health issues.
“It’s no longer just handing them a backpack and setting up a bus. It’s more intensive and involving more aspects,” Runkle said.
Billings and Browning both have educators who have received trauma-focused training and clinical counselors to support specific students. Both efforts target the general student population, given that such issues aren't exclusive to homeless students.
But as more homeless students are identified, it highlights how many students are more likely than their peers to rely on such services.
“If they’re hungry or tired or dirty, it’s going to be really hard for them to concentrate on anything school related,” Walker said.