BILLINGS – A total of 462 children attending school in Billings School District 2 are considered homeless.
“It’s these kids that are living in the shelters, or they are doubled or tripled up with another family because of economic hardship. Kids that are in the motels, the hotels around town that maybe started out as a temporary solution but ends up being longer term because of financial and then those kids that are in cars, or sleeping in a camper or at the campgrounds,” said Susan Runkle, the program’s liaison when talking about what qualifies a student to be homeless.
Runkle recently accepted a check valued at $500 from the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools through Q2’s ‘One Class at a Time’ program.
She plans to use the money to purchase items that are unique to each student’s situation.
“I bought things like an air mattress for a family that was sleeping on a couch and the kids were sleeping on the floor with just blankets. Things like a Tracfone for an unaccompanied youth that was living on the streets, but coming to school every day, but we wanted a safety net for him, so we got him a Tracfone so we could at least call him if he didn’t show up,” Runkle said.
She was also gifted 200 drink cards from City Brew to give out to students in the program.
Funded through a federal grant, the homeless education program provides transportation, food, school supplies, hygiene items, and students are allowed to stay at the same school even if they move.
“I remember one mom was so excited because there was a pair of fingernail clippers in a hygiene pack that we gave her. It’s the little things that we don’t even think about,” Runkle said.
With donations, Runkle can purchase items that aren’t covered through the federal grant.
Donations can be made by texting SD2Homeless to 53-555.
You can also visit the education foundation website and select the SD2 Homeless Student Fund.
“If they want to donate to a particular school, they can talk with the secretary, or the counselor or the principal, and find out what the needs are to that specific school,” Runkle said.
Among the homeless students, about 80 to 100 of them are also considered “unaccompanied youth.”
“They are youth that are not in the physical custody of their parent or guardian, so they can be any age. Sometimes they are dropped off with a family friend, or a grandma, and then grandma is taking care of them but doesn’t have any custody, so they’re unaccompanied,” Runkle said.
She said this also includes students who are couch surfing and going from home to home.
Since the pandemic began, Runkle said they’ve seen more kids and families with higher needs.
“Because of the high housing costs and people having to take time off for quarantine, and losing jobs because of different reasons, losing their daycares because of closures,” she said.
Even during the pandemic, most of the district’s homeless children are local.
“A majority of our kids are already our kids, and our neighbors and our friends. They’re already in the school district, or they are from the area. I do have an influx of out-of-state, out-of-district kids coming, but a vast majority of them are ones that we’ve already had in our district,” Runkle said.
On the job for the past 19 years, Runkle is getting ready to retire at the end of this school year.
“The community is very, very good and I’ve appreciated all of their help all these years, and the kids are very appreciative. They’re pretty resilient,” she said.