Montana Program Provides Services for Homeless Youth

Learn how Montana's Tumbleweed Runaway Program leverages local resources to help house youth experiencing homelessness.

For the youth experiencing homelessness at three Montana high schools, school can be a haven. It is a place where they can get two meals a day and feel like any other teen. They can also get the help they need to survive or reconnect with family from three onsite crisis counselors from the Tumbleweed Runaway Program.

Sheri Bolter, the program's executive director, explained that the school pays for the counselors to work fulltime at the school. Having onsite counselors allows the youth easy access to help, while allowing them to maintain their privacy and avoid exclusion from being labeled as homeless. “A teacher can call us to tell us a teen is falling asleep at their desk,” she said.

Boelter said that counselors help the youth work with their parents on the conflicts that have caused them to leave home. They can also help provide basic necessities from an onsite food pantry or clothing closet. In addition, they can let the youth into the school building early to allow them to shower and help them with transportation. Last year, 28 youth experiencing homelessness graduated, thanks in part to the program, Boelter noted.

Doing More With Less

The Tumbleweed Runaway Program was founded in 1976 to serve youth and families in crisis. The program offers a range of services for runaway, homeless, and throwaway youth, from a drop-in center to case management, street outreach, and transitional housing. The program deals with the same issues facing youth in crisis in any city, but Boelter and her staff must often be creative because there are few resources in the area.

“We are dealing with similar issues with fewer resources,” Boelter said. “We are the only 24-hour runaway crisis line in Montana, so we also get calls from rural youth.” She noted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth also face greater stigma and bullying.

A shortage of foster homes in Montana has left Tumbleweed trying to provide services for about 200 youth between age 15 and 17 who normally would be placed in a foster home. About 400 others have chosen to leave the foster care system. To provide health care for these youth, Boelter and her colleagues have formed strong relationships with the county health department. Despite increased federal funding to extend foster care through age 21, there is also a shortage of state services for older foster youth.

The Transition to Independence

To help these youth, Tumbleweed has built a patchwork of services. There are no nearby shelters for youth, Boelter said, so the program has a drop-in center where youth can shower, relax, and get a meal. A particularly hard winter last year, in which temperatures dropped to minus 26 degrees, prompted the program to extend the center’s hours. In 2015, it will be open 23 hours a day.

“It’s not a place to sleep, but at least we are not kicking them out into the elements,” she said. Tumbleweed provides scattered-site housing to 20 youth in apartments throughout Billings. The program works with landlords who are willing to rent units to the program at below market rates of about $400 a month (compared to a typical $900 rent). The youth’s rent is paid and Tumbleweed provides wraparound services until the youth is able to graduate high school, get a job, and meet other goals. Eventually, the youth takes over the lease. The program works for some youth, but not all. “We’ve had some successes and some failures,” Boelter said. She explained that for some youth, living alone is simply too lonely.

For youth who need more of a family setting, the program provides transitional housing for six youth at two group homes. These youth live with a resident manager and see a case manager and youth development specialist daily.

Boelter said that the key to helping youth successfully transition to independence is helping them to stay hopeful and not give up. “It’s really about hope,” she said.

This article was originally published to highlight the March 2015 theme of Youth Homelessness.

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Bridget M. Kuehn
Last Updated: 04/19/2016