Schools, agencies seek joint response to youth homelessness

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TOPSHAM — Over the last decade, the homeless youth population in School Administrative District 75 has increased from 12 in 2003 to an average of 50 a year since 2008, according to data compiled by the district health coordinator.

Until recently, each community in the district has responded for the most part independently to the needs of homeless youth in their school systems.

But as the number of homeless students continues rises, area towns are working together to create awareness of the problem and explore common solutions.

The first of two forums to engage the issue took place Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Topsham Public Library, where a panel of school administrators, advocates and a local businessman who overcame homelessness as a teenager spoke and took questions from a packed audience.

Mary Booth, the health coordinator, couldn’t explain why the homeless number has increased, but theorized that the housing crisis may have played a role; in 2005, there were 31 reported homeless students in SAD 75, but that number jumped to more than 50 in 2008, where it has hovered.

Of those 50 cases, Booth said about a dozen are usually unaccompanied homeless youth.

Booth described the population of homeless students in SAD 75 as consistent with case numbers at Regional School Unit 1, and in the Brunswick School Department, based on her conversations with administrators, and she estimated there are about 35 unaccompanied homeless students across the three districts.

But because homeless students are often discreet about their situations, Booth said the number of unreported cases could make the total higher.

Last year, the magnitude of the Brunswick area’s youth homeless population came to the attention of Carolyn Eklund, a rector at Brunswick’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

She applied for a $2,500 grant through the Episcopal Diocese of Maine to fight female sex trafficking, and, as she began to look deeply into Brunswick’s homeless and “underground” communities, discovered the increasing number of homeless teens, and widened her focus.

Last June, St. Paul’s held a 1 1/2-hour stakeholders meeting with St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to discuss what the parishes could do to combat the issue; they decided to use the grant money to plan the September and October forums.

“I wish homelessness was as simple as being homeless,” Jim Howard, panelist and CEO of Topsham’s Priority Real Estate Group, said at Wednesday’s forum.

Howard, 52, left his home at age 15 to escape an abusive household; he spent a summer living in a car and subsisting on cans of ravioli. That fall he moved into a sleeping bag on the floor of his best friend’s bedroom, and eventually graduated from Mt. Ararat High School in 1983.

His experience is characteristic of what the panel described as typical for the majority of today’s homeless youth, where students are not necessarily sleeping outside, but living a unstable, moment-to-moment existence.

It also fits the legal definition of homelessness, which the federal government calls the “lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” under the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act.

“I was no longer homeless, but I still had to deal with all the issues of being homeless,” Howard said, hitting on a major theme of the night.

Through McKinney-Vento, schools provide services to help with issues such as transportation and guaranteed enrollment. Panelists from SAD 75, RSU 1 and Brunswick schools spoke at the forum of school programs that provide meals and places for students to shower.

Tedford Housing’s Donna Verhoeven is the link between the three districts: she coordinates the McKinney-Vento grant that provides funding to Brunswick, SAD 75 and RSU 1.

Her motto, she said, is to “take kids where they are” and make sure they have a way of getting to school and finding a place to sleep; that they have medical coverage, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – even a pair of sneakers to attend gym class.

But students are only in school for part of their day, and her funding can only provide students with resources related to their education.

Verhoeven asked the Sept. 28 audience to imagine what it is like for a student to hear the school bell ring at 2 p.m. and not know where to go or how to get what they need in order to show up again the next day. To adequately fight teen homelessness, she said there needs to be a greater network of services that exists in addition to school services.

Over the phone two days later, Verhoeven quoted the old adage, “‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We need to become that village.”

Howard agreed.

“All these groups,” he  said, referring to the school systems, Tedford, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, the Teen Center, and Gathering Place, “They all help kids over time. None of them solve the problem. They help solve the problem over time.”

He said he couldn’t specify “a hole” in services available to the homeless population, just that there needs to be more resources provided to their organization so they could expand their reach.

As for relieving the emotional trauma of homelessness, that’s a different story.

“Depending on the severity of (what happened), it could take a couple years” to work through that trauma, he said.  Though decades have passed since he was homeless, the experience is still difficult for him to talk about.

Verhoeven hinted during the forum that one area where support services might further their focus is on developing transition plans for graduating homeless youth.

Though attending school while homeless is challenging, it provides structure and services; often, homeless teens have a hard time finding and holding down a job after they graduate.

Developing partnerships within the community while students are still in school may be an important piece to make sure students succeed after they graduate.

Under McKinney-Vento, Verhoeven can work with youth through “school age,” which means until they are as old as 20. After that, they are on their own.

A second forum is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 20 in the same location, and will focus on finding solutions going forward. It will include a presentation from Patricia Julianelle of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

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

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.