Tumbleweed does much more for our community than most Billings folks know. The private, nonprofit organization with offices at 505 N. 24th St. serves homeless, runaway, abused and troubled youth with:
- Services for people ages 10-24.
- School-based services, including crisis counselors at Billings public high schools.
- A 24/7 crisis line (888-816-4702 toll free or 406-259-2558 in Billings)
- Runaway reunification
- Advocacy for youth
- Short-term counseling
- Food pantry
- Access to showers, laundry and hygiene essentials
- Clothing garage
- Life skills development
- Education and employment support
- Housing, including a house for six youth and four transitional apartments
- Case management
- Financial literacy education
- Temporary living support for ages 16-21.
- Drop-in center open at mid-day for lunch, showers, laundry and counseling.
- Local provider of the federal Chaffee Foster Care Independent Living program, which serves teens who are aging out of the foster care system.
- Helping young victims of human trafficking and working to raise community awareness of this crime happening right here in Billings.
At least 86 youth served by Tumbleweed have identified themselves as victims of human trafficking in the past three years. Tumbleweed provided them with individualized services, such as intensive case management, referrals to law enforcement and community resources.
For many years, Tumbleweed was known for operating an overnight drop-in center for youth and young adults. That overnight service was discontinued in April after Tumbleweed assessed demand and the most effective strategies to keep young people safe and off the streets.
The majority of people using overnight drop-in were people ages 18-24, although there are other local services for people 18 and older, says Executive Director Erika Willis. On average, no more than five people under age 18 used the overnight drop-in during a six-month period.
Tumbleweed is directing its limited funds to programs that will help prevent homelessness and help teens get settled in permanent housing.
"Our vision at Tumbleweed is to end youth homelessness," Willis told The Gazette this week. "We want to support and extend programs that sustain our vision. We turn every stone to find a stable living situation for every youth." That may be back home, with other relatives, a neighbor or something else.
The Tumbleweed vision is a coordinated system in which multiple community partners share resources, avoid duplication and focus on meeting the needs of youth. Tumbleweed works with law enforcement, Child Protective Services, schools and community organizations involved in youth health care, employment, housing and education support.
The youth homeless prevention system needs to be different than the adult system, Willis said. "Their brains are still developing. They are kids."
Homeless teens often aren't visible. They may be couch surfing, spending one night with a friend and the next night at another house.
"They wake up in the morning and don't know where they are going to spend the night," Willis said. "We want to catch them before they are literally on the streets."
Many homeless young people have aged out of foster care and many are LGBT or questioning. Young people's brains are still developing, so they need to learn skills to survive and thrive in the adult world.
Tumbleweed counts on community support for volunteers, donations to the food pantry, the clothing garage, bus passes and supplies for laundry, socks, underwear and personal hygiene supplies. About 38% percent of Tumbleweed's funding comes from individual cash donations or local fundraising events, such as a dinner theater set for June 14 and 15. (See box above for details.) Forty percent comes from federal grants and 22% comes from other grants and contracts.
There are gaps in Billings area services to meet the needs of homeless young people. Youth homelessness is a serious community problem that demands a community solution focused on vulnerable youth — who have different needs than homeless adults.