Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana has taken flight with an open house at its first home for homeless youth in Whitefish and the hiring of its first executive director.
At the open house Feb. 26, Sparrow’s Nest Chairwoman Marcia Bumke, Vice Chairwoman Linda Kaps, board members and Executive Director Jerramy Dear-Ruel greeted a steady flow of visitors to the home at 200 Colorado Ave. in Whitefish.
The house, owned by St. Peter Lutheran Church, formerly was a parsonage and can hold five unaccompanied homeless teens.
“It’s a dream that’s come to fruition,” Kaps said when asked what it meant to be at this point after years of searching for answers. “I’ve never worked so hard for something in my life and known so little and come so far.”
As a counselor at Columbia Falls High School, Kaps said she deals with many homeless students. Homelessness is defined as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate night-time residence, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
“We have a lot of situations right now and there’s nothing. I’m like, ‘Can you hang tight until we get our house open?’” Kaps said, noting that Columbia Falls is in the discovery stages of what it would take to open a youth shelter.
Before the Whitefish house can bring in teens, Sparrow’s Nest needs to hire a residential manager along with establishing policies, procedures, an intake process and referral system that will involve school staffers such as counselors or homeless education liaisons along with attempts to contact parents or guardians.
“Most of the kids that I deal with that are homeless don’t see themselves ever going back to their families because of circumstances,” Kaps said.
Those circumstances may include dysfunction among family members; cases of neglect or abuse, whether physical, mental or sexual; or teens may be kicked out of the home for reasons such as sexual orientation.
The mission of Sparrow’s Nest is to set teens up for success in a safe, supportive environment that enables them to focus on graduating from high school.
One Sparrow’s Nest supporter, Trevor Hando, 25, is currently homeless and living in a camper at a friend’s house outside Kalispell. Prior to that, he spent years sleeping in his car. Many teens also turn to “couch surfing” at friends or relatives’ homes, or living in motels.
Aside from food, shelter and medical issues that go hand-in-hand with homelessness, Hando talked about the day-to-day difficulties due to not having a physical address often required to fill out a job application, open a bank account or set up a post-office box for mail.
“When you’re constantly having to move around and move from this place to go to his place, it requires so much energy and focus at times you almost can’t breathe and you want to give up because you’re so tired,” Hando said. “I see Sparrow’s Nest as an opportunity for success and I’m hoping teenagers will see it as an opportunity to move forward in life and they don’t have to fight so hard to survive day by day and can focus on school.”
Hando said he wasn’t homeless as a teenager but comes from a broken home where his dad left when he was 8, an older brother also left later on and a younger brother has been in youth homes. Hando decided he would be better off leaving.
“I had $5 and a tank full of gas. I just grabbed some clothes and a few other things and just drove,” Hando said. “In a lot of ways me becoming homeless was trying to move forward without having any knowledge of what to do. Becoming homeless for me was not intentional. I was trying to just step up and just make an effort to move forward in life.”
Isolating himself from people, sleeping in his car in below-zero temperatures and battling thoughts of suicide, Hando still didn’t want to return to a life he described as “stagnant and idle.” Instead, he decided to take a new approach to better his situation and, as he put it ,“grow up.”
“I ended up here and met some people through [Bible] camps,” Hando said, noting he started getting involved and volunteering with Canvas Church. “The key thing that helped me through was my friends and being involved with Canvas Church.”
Dear-Ruel, 33, who officially started his duties as executive director on Tuesday, joins Sparrow’s Nest from his former position as a habilitation technician for AWARE Inc. in Anaconda, where he supervised, assisted in implementing support plans and ensuring the care of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to increase independence.
Prior to that, he worked as a ranger for the National Park Service for several years. He also has some experience as a detention officer with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
He duties include oversight of Sparrow’s Nest and “building it up.”
“I have a really strong passion for at-risk youth,” Dear-Ruel said.
Dear-Ruel’s short-term goals include having the Whitefish home and one in Kalispell operational by late summer or fall with the long-term goal of branching out to Bigfork and Columbia Falls.
“Being able to build up to this point has been incredible,” Dear-Ruel said.
At the home in Kalispell, Sparrow’s Nest will seek a conditional use permit in April and submit plans to the Kalispell City Council in May to move forward with renovations, Bumke said.
Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana began in 2012 with a group of concerned Flathead High School parents and turned into a grassroots community-wide effort to establish a safe place for homeless, unaccompanied teens.
Kaps is confident that once the homes are up and running, other communities won’t be afraid to address sheltering homeless youth.
“This is going to carry on and go forward and that’s real exciting for me. I know people are going to reach out to us: ‘How did you do it, what did you do,’” Kaps said.
Hilary Matheson is a reporter for The Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.