Teen homelessness spotlighted in campaign

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A tribute to homeless teens in the valley sits in front of the Daily Inter Lake last week.

Homeless teens often remain faceless and nameless to the people who pass them by, but the everyday challenges they face are highlighted by Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana in the third annual “Somebodies” campaign.

Recently, mannequins dressed in jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and tennis shoes were set up around the valley to represent unaccompanied homeless youth. The mannequins had cardboard signs with written phrases that portray everyday realities of homelessness, such as “I have no place to sleep” or “I have no place to live.”

The campaign aims to increase the community’s awareness about teens facing homelessness. Next to each mannequin was a sign educating the public on the issue.

Homelessness is defined as lacking a fixed, regular, or adequate night-time residence, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Youth in this situation may find themselves “couch surfing” between friends’ or relatives’ homes, living in a park or abandoned building, and possibly sleeping in a vehicle.

Circumstances leading to homelessness among youth stem from family problems, economic problems, or residential instability, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

In Columbia Falls High School alone, there are an estimated 30 to 40 homeless teens who are outside of the regular foster care and child protective services system, noted Sparrow’s Nest boardmember and school counselor Linda Kaps.

Sparrow’s Nest has a home in Whitefish to house teens with 24/7 supervision, Kaps noted. But it’s expensive — about $250,000 annually. The organization is also remodeling a home in Kalispell. Teens don’t have to live in a community to stay in its homeless shelter. For example, a Columbia Falls teen stayed in Whitefish this year.

Youth facing homelessness on their own often become “invisible” to the community because they might not want to draw attention to their situation out of fear or shame, “but they are there,” said Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana Chairwoman Marcia Bumke.

The mannequins caught the public’s eye.

“It’s causing a bit of a stir, and that’s good,” Kaps said.

The Hungry Horse News and its sister newspapers, the Daily Inter Lake and the Whitefish Pilot, contributed $500 in support of the Sparrow’s Nest mission.

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