Young people who’ve experienced homelessness in Montana feel like they often fall through the cracks of programs designed to help kids fleeing abusive homes or needing a place to stay.
"I didn’t have any support or anybody to turn to when I was homeless, so that was a big struggle."
This young woman was one of three panelists who spoke at Montana’s first-ever statewide conference on Homelessness in Helena Monday. We’re not using their names at their request.
She says she wound up in Montana as the result of being trafficked and struggling with addiction, and she ended up living in her car. Her involvement with drugs brought police contact, which she says made things worse.
"They impounded the car that I was living in that had all my clothing, all my ID, my money. Everything that I owned to my name was in that vehicle, and they took it from me, two separate occasions."
At one point, the young woman wound up in shelter for domestic violence victims, but wasn’t allowed to stay.
"It’s a great program, great people, great house. But I just wasn’t as needy or as involved in domestic violence as the more needy. So I feel like if we had more resources maybe we could be able to help those who are in need but not necessarily in danger."
Another young woman said rules designed to protect kids experiencing abuse at home can actually be counter-productive.
"A lot of kids do not want to speak out because CPS will be called."
CPS is Child Protective Services, the state agency with the power to remove kids from unsafe homes and place them in foster care.
"If a teacher or a mandated reporter — which, of course their intentions are good — hears that you are homeless; whether it's couch-surfing, or you're staying at — we have a shelter here in Helena called God's Love — or something like that, CPS gets involved. And now I'm in a worse situation because you've just placed me in foster care home may be excellent, or may be terrible."
Another panelist said that CPS always lets foster families know ahead of time when they’ll be coming to inspect them, giving them time to hide signs of abuse or indications of danger.
With help from a Washington, D.C. based organization called the National Network for Youth, the young women on the homelessness conference panel have joined regional "youth action boards" to try to give adult decision makers real perspective on what needs to be done in Montana. That’s crucial, says the National Network for Youth’s Amy Louttit.
"That work has to be led by the young people that are experiencing it themselves."
The goal is for the regional youth action boards to grow and bring in more representation, including from Native American communities; and for representatives from each of the boards to meet together a few times a year to act as a state youth action board.
As tough as things are for homeless youth in Montana, the panelists all had praise for kind people and effective organizations that they’ve encountered here that have helped them get their lives on track.
The young woman from the beginning of the story, whose car was impounded by the police? She’s now in college, and says the policeman who impounded her car ended up helping her.
"He essentially really did kinda like push the envelope for me to really — I had been wanting to get myself out of it — but he had pushed me to really have to do it. And so for that, I’ll be thankful."