Helena Public Schools See Rising Numbers of Homeless Students

HELENA — The homeless population in the Helena area has been a topic of discussion and concern. But, alongside homeless adults, there is another growing group of homeless students.

As of early October 2023, Helena Public Schools recorded 275 students without a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence – the legal definition of a homeless student under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Kaiden Watts is graduating from the Project for Alternative Learning in 2023, and he fits that definition in his senior year.

“I slept in my car for three months,” Watts said.

PAL diploma

Kaiden Watts

To say Watts had a rough senior year is an understatement. He became homeless during the second semester of his senior year and before that, he spent his first semester living alone with his younger brother and his pets.

Watts said he felt comfortable enough at PAL to tell his teachers what was going on.

“I told Michele and Brooke first,” Watts said.

The Michele he’s talking about is Michele Zentz, PAL’s English teacher and district homeless liaison.

“They are incredibly resilient students,” Zentz said of students facing unstable housing situations, like Watts. “A lot of times we’ll be shocked to know, oh my God, this kid was so focused on this project, on getting it done, that I had no idea – you’ll hear the staff say – that he was living in a tent on a field golf. camping, moving every 14 days.

Zentz connects students and their families with resources, like free school meals, transportation assistance and Angel fundwhich provides clothing, school supplies, field trip fees, shoes and other necessities to students.

Zentz also has a closet stocked with things like winter gear, school supplies, personal hygiene items and kitchen tools, like slow cookers and cooktops, for students in need.

Helena Homeless Student Statistics

MTN News

The number of students needing Zentz’s help continues to grow. According to HPS, the district identified 383 students meeting the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act definition of homeless for the entire 2022-2023 school year. Just two months into the 2023-2024 school year, the district had already identified 275 students who fit that definition.

“This year we are seeing more people experiencing homelessness, which unsettles me,” Zentz said.

Unsettling and extremely difficult for students, like Watts who was trying to care for his younger brother and pets while finishing his senior year of high school.

“After a while it got tiring,” Watts said. “I ended up making buttered noodles every night and PAL chili would give us some.”

Through his hard work and support from PAL and HPS, Watts graduated in June 2023. He now lives and works in Billings and pursues his passion: music.

PAL diploma 2023

MTN News

A few months into his senior year of high school, Watts has some perspective on his experience.

“It can happen to anyone, and it can happen immediately, out of nowhere,” Watts said. “We just have to keep going.”


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