Local youth service providers say youth homelessness is real, and services are needed to support students, help them graduate high school and transition into adulthood.
A handful of local service providers and community members working to tackle the growing yet often invisible issue spoke at a forum at Topsham Public Library on Wednesday.
Speakers included the successful Topsham-based developer Jim Howard, who left an abusive household at age 15. No driver’s license yet, he got together what money he could to buy a car, and lived in it. He bought cans of Ravioli so he’d have something to eat.
His best friend would stay with him occasionally to keep him company but one night during a thunderstorm, invited Howard to stay at his house instead.
“I ended up staying at his house for four years,” Howard said.
This family didn’t have much themselves but decided to take care of him. He slept in his friend’s bedroom in a sleeping bag on the floor. Every Christmas, the friend’s mother bought him a new sleeping bag. No longer homeless, he still faced all the issues that made him leave home.
A former Mt. Ararat High School guidance councilor, the late Jim Cornish, was instrumental in getting him through high school so he could graduate in 1983.
Howard became involved in a motorcycle business, then started up Home Vision Video and went on to build Priority Real Estate Group. His company gives back to the community, investing upward of $17,000 annually into organizations — including those that serve children and the elderly. He and his family have decided to create a foundation with the aim to eventually raise $250,000 to continue this mission.
At 52, Howard said life is good now, yet he still struggles to tell his story as he did Wednesday.
For those in the audience working with kids, “Keep up the good work because you are going to make a difference for a lot of people,” Howard said.
What the data says
Mary Booth, school health coordinator for School Administrative District 75, said in 2003-04, there were 12 homeless students in SAD 75 identified as being eligible for support under the law. Ninety-two percent were at the high school level and 66 percent were “doubled up,” that is, they are sharing housing due to economic struggles.
The next year, 2004-05, there were 31 homeless students and only 65 percent were at the high school level.
“What happened and what has happened is that homeless students were being identified at the middle school level and at the elementary level,” Booth said. Still about 60 percent of these students were still doubled up.
In 2009-10, following the housing bust and economic downturn, the total number of cases increased to 46. There was an increase in cases at the elementary level. Eighty-three percent of these homeless students were doubled up.
Currently, SAD 75 averages 12 to 15 unaccompanied homeless students — youth not in the custody of their legal guardian and lacking a fixed, regular or adequate living situation. Under the law, homeless students can continue to go to the same school even if they’ve left the geographic boundaries of the school system for housing, to prevent disruption to their education. The district provides them transportation which can quickly tap resources.
While the school district can provide services to the students during the school day, there is concern over what happens to students when not at school, Booth said.
Morse High School councilor Amber McGowen said she’s only had three students actually sleeping on a bench or in tents who were homeless. Most double up in homes where resources are already limited. She has a family with 17 people living in their household, with students from five different families.
“These students feel safe at night and they feel a sense of belonging,” McGowen said.
They may be sleeping several people in a double size bed or taking turns on the floor and sharing a single bathroom, but still feel a sense of community. She asks the families taking in these youth what they need so they can continue to host these children in a safe environment.
Providing resources from food to clothing, “I think we offer a lot of good programming, but we still have a long way to go,” McGowen said.
“Safe, stable, nurturing environment,” said Donna Verhoeven with Tedford Housing’s Homeless Youth-Merrymeeting Project. “It seems like a no-brainer but that’s what these kids need.
“Believe me, when a kid decides to leave home, it is not without careful consideration,” she said. She talks with the students about what they need to stay in school.
The biggest challenge isn’t getting homeless students to graduate high school, though. “I’m worried about what happens when they leave high school,” Verhoeven said.
Verhoeven warned that post-high school is a “very scary” time, because they lose a support system they had at the school.
“Most of these kids don’t have the skill set to sometimes even navigate getting a job,” Verhoeven said. “School is great, but I think we need to get things in kids’ tool belts that make a significant impact on where they go when they leave school.”
There is also a fundamental breakdown in the intervention systems responsible for nurturing, Verhoeven said.
Panelist Jane Scease, who helped establish the Ad Hoc Homeless Student Housing Group, said Wednesday’s discussion is not the end. A second youth homelessness forum will be held Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. at Topsham Public Library.
The events have been organized by the Frontline Committee of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, St. Charles/All Saints Parish, and the Ad Hoc Homeless Student Housing Group.