Changing The Face Of Homelessness: Part I

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Rapid City, SD Gunnar Leach said "This is people's lives. That's reality."

He's a high school graduate - with a steady job - and place to live.

But that wasn't always Gunnar Leach's reality after his family lost their home.

Leach said "At the end of the day, I wasn't quite sure where I was going."

At just 17-years-old - a high school senior - Gunnar found himself on his own.

Leach said "I was kind of just out, I didn't know who to talk to, who to go to."

He rarely saw his mom, sometimes just once a month.

And he was left floating between friends' and relatives' houses to survive.

Leach said "I always felt like I was burdening other people by asking for help or just staying at their house for prolonged periods of time."

Sadly, Gunnar's story is just one of hundreds among youth in the Black Hills.

The Rapid City School District says more than 400 students are homeless this year.

That number includes the 1 in 5 kids at General Beadle Elementary, alone.

Lilly Gibson, on the Homeless Coalition Youth Task Force, said "It honestly makes me feel sick to think about the number of students in my school and Rapid City in general that are struggling with homelessness."

Anita Deranleau, the homeless coordinator for RCAS, said "Homelessness is an invisible problem in Rapid City. It's hard to see, but it's there."

And for many homeless students - it takes a toll on academics.

Leach said "Attendance was one of the biggest issues with school. And then my grades started to slip a little bit."

Derenleau said "When you have to spend time worrying where you're going to be on a single night, it does definitely impact your concentration level, your focus."

Some of these staggering stats are the result of runaway kids - about 600 reported in this area each year.

And many of them only have one place to turn.

Staci Jonson, the program director for the Arise Youth Center West in Rapid City, said "They need somewhere to go - they need a safe place to lay their head down at night."

The Arise Youth Center is the area's only emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youth. Last year, they served nearly 50 kids.

But, with limited beds, a person can only stay up to 21 days here.

Jonson said "We need to recognize that runaway and homeless youth exists so that we can be a better part of the solution."

Experts say kids usually run from violence or addiction at home.

Jonson said "Oftentimes they'll say they're either running to or from something."

And they're breaking down stereotypes.

Cameron Kokesh, on the Homeless Coalition Youth Task Force, said "Most students that are homeless are not bad kids. They're just good kids stuck in a bad situation."

But there is a way out.

Gunnar got through his senior year while struggling with homelessness - he got his high school diploma, and is now looking into college.

Leach said "Keep your chin up, because it will get better if you really try."