HELENA — The unsheltered population in the Helena area has been a topic of discussion and concern. But, along with unsheltered adults, there is another growing group of unsheltered students.
As of the beginning of October 2023, Helena Public Schools recorded 275 students without a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence—the legal definition of a homeless student according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Kaiden Watts graduated from the Project for Alternative Learning in 2023, and he fits that definition his senior year.
“I was sleeping in my car for three months,” Watts said.
To say Watts had a challenging senior year is an understatement. He became homeless his second semester of senior year, and before that, he spent his first semester living alone with his younger brother and family pets.
Watts said he felt comfortable enough at PAL to tell his teachers what was going.
“I told Michele and Brooke first,” Watts said.
The Michele he’s talking about is Michele Zentz, an English teacher at PAL and the district’s homeless liaison.
“They’re amazingly resilient students,” Zentz said of the students facing unstable housing situations, like Watts. “A lot of times we’ll be shocked to know, oh my gosh, this kiddo was so focused on this project, getting it done, I had no idea—you’ll hear staff say—they were living in a tent on a campground, moving every 14 days.”
Zentz connects students and their families with resources, like free school meals, transportation help and the Angel Fund, which provides clothing, school supplies, field trip fees, shoes and other necessities to students.
Zentz also has a supply closet full of things like winter gear, school supplies, personal hygiene items and cooking supplies—like crockpots and cooktops—for students in need.
The number of students needing Zentz’s help is growing. According to HPS, the district identified 383 students fitting the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act definition of homeless in all of the 2022-2023 school year. Just about two months into the 2023-2024 school year, the district had already identified 275 students fitting that definition.
“This year, we’re seeing more of the unsheltered, which to me is unsettling,” Zentz said.
Unsettling, and extremely challenging for students, like Watts who was trying to take care of his younger sibling and family pets while completing his senior year of high school.
“After a while it just got tiring,” Watts said. “I ended up making butter noodles every night—and the chili PAL used to give us.”
Thanks to his own hard work, and support from PAL and HPS, Watts graduated in June 2023. He is now living and working in Billings, and pursuing his passion—music.
A few months removed from his senior year of high school, Watts has some perspective on his experience.
“It could happen to anyone, and it can happen right away, out of nowhere,” Watts said. “You just have to keep going.”