Host families explored to help homeless teens

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TOPSHAM — One of the solutions to supporting the Mid Coast’s growing population of homeless youth might be more than just providing housing, but providing a home.

Patricia Julianelle, an attorney with the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, spoke to over 70 leaders and members of the Brunswick, Topsham and Bath communities Oct. 20 about ways to address the area’s rising number of homeless youth. 

Julianelle raised the possibility of starting a host home program in the area, where members of the community make their homes available to homeless students in Brunswick, MSAD 75 and RSU 1. 

The program would supplement established resources, including new support services that some Brunswick parents and school administrators have started to organize support services for homeless students.

Last Thursday’s event was the the second installment of a two-part series, the first of which raised awareness of the issue on Sept. 28, explaining that the homeless rate in area schools has nearly quintupled since 2003.

Julianelle told the crowd that based on surveys she’d conducted of homeless youth across the county, “shelters and foster care are usually at the bottom of the list” of places and resources homeless teens look when they seek help.

The “host home” model, however, received repeated high marks, because of the informal nature of the program. Host homes build on what sometimes happens naturally, where homeless teens are taken in by members of the community, and are provided from as little as a place to sleep, or as involved as a quasi-family-like relationship with the hosts.

In the previous Sept. 28 forum, Tedford Housing’s Donna Verhoeven explained that, in many cases, area homeless youth are not actually sleeping outside, but “doubled up” at a friend’s house. This situation, where a young person lacks a fixed, stable residence, meets the federal definition of homelessness, according to the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act.

Julianelle said formalizing a host-home model in the Mid Coast would not jeopardize a teen’s protections under McKinney-Vento, and, unlike the “doubling up” that is already happening, would involve some precautionary measures such as background checks and support resources for host families.

She said in her experience, the arrangement is particularly successful when the homeless teen already has a relationship with the host family or individual, and when both the teen and the host discuss and customize expectations for the arrangement. 

Depending on the arrangement, Julianelle said she’s seen the model cost as little as $40 a month for some families, who have simply paid for a background check, and covered the cost of utilities and occasionally, food, for the teen they’ve taken in.

With the help of school administrators and people like Verhoeven, who coordinates a McKinney-Vento grant through the Merrymeeting project, most homeless teens have access to the costs of basic needs and health care through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and MaineCare.

Responding to Julianelle, MSAD 75 health coordinator Mary Booth said, “I think having host homes would be fabulous, because right now we have nothing,” but qualified her support in stating that the program wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all for the youth who need it.

Booth said should could think of a few students for whom a host-home arrangement “might be wonderful,” but was wary about assuming some of the 15 or so other students that are homeless in MSAD 75 would be amenable.

Booth also cautioned that there would have to be adequate support services in place for hosts. “I think you have to be really thoughtful about how you put together supports for families that are going to do that,” she said, and echoed Julianelle’s call for workshops and background checks.

Julianelle noted that NEAEHCY offers webinars and web kits with advice for how to set up a host home model, but urged the audience to remember that outside of the model’s legal framework, the pairing is not meant to follow a top-down, prescribed model.

Booth also said that as a school administrator, she was unable to make referrals, and that proper state vetting and licensing would need to be in place in order for the model to successfully meet the needs of both students and the schools and resources that already exist.

The forum crowd, composed mostly of Brunswick residents, seemed excited by the opportunity to take action, and a clipboard circulated so people could mark their interest in learning more about becoming a host.

Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin could not attend either of the forums because she was at school board meetings, but is a member of the ad hoc group that helped organize them, and praised the host home model.

“I can name several people immediately that would be in dire need,” she said Tuesday.

Over the summer, parents Sarah Singer and Teresa Gillis had the idea for TEAN: the emergency action network. Singer and Gillis are both members of the school board, but are wearing their “parent and community hats” for this project.

However, it was only by serving on the board that the two learned of the school’s increasing population of homeless teens.

Makin, also Brunswick’s McKinney-Vento coordinator, said Tuesday,  “Unfortunately, we’re trending toward a higher number (of homeless teens in the school system) this year based on last year” and that “the situations seem more dire.”

Last spring, there were over 40 homeless teens in the Brunswick school system, up from six in 2007.

The emergency action network launched its website the week of the second forum, as a “match-making” service where Brunswick community members volunteer to supply items that homeless students anonymously requests.

In its current form, an email goes out to a group of interested parents and community members – “like a list-serve,” Singer said – asking for a specific donation – a portable phone charger, a gift card for groceries.

Parents then respond to Singer, Gillis, or Makin – usually within an hour, according to Makin – and drop off the requested items at the School Department on Federal Street. 

In one case, Makin said someone responded to a call for a tent within the afternoon to house an evicted family’s belongings.

“We’re not a nonprofit; we don’t have any staff,” Singer said Tuesday. “We just volunteers trying to organize and effort.”

Singer described the program as a satisfyingly immediate and direct way for people to help others. She said it is also a way for the community to alleviate some of the burden borne by school administrators and teachers, who bear most of that responsibility at present.

Based on the success of TEAN so far, Makin speculated that Brunswick “is a community where the host home concept really has a very good chance.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Patricia Julianelle, an attorney with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, discusses a plan to support the growing population of homeless youth in the Brunswick, Topsham, and Bath area. She spoke at the Topsham Public Library on Oct. 20.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.