BRUNSWICK — Ruth Ann Driscoll became emancipated when she was 17 years old.
She stood in the courthouse in West Bath in 2012 with her mother next to her. Driscoll’s mother didn’t actively participate in the legal process that would take her daughter out of her care, but consented by her presence.
With the stroke of a judge’s pen, Driscoll was legally independent. “I was shocked by how easy it was,” she recalled in an interview July 22.
It was a huge step for the high school student, who, in the years and months leading to her emancipation, had paid rent for their house on Mill Street to supplement the income her mom earned as a chambermaid. The living situation was tense, and Driscoll often left for days, crashing on friends’ couches or finding other, less-appropriate places to sleep.
Though she never reported it, and was never reported to school staff or police, in those months Driscoll actually met the federal definition of homelessness. She did not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” and was thus eligible for protections and transportation accommodations from the School Department.
“It’s not something I would go to school and tell my friends about,” she said.
But she said emancipation was a turning point for her. She was able to sign a lease on her own, and moved into a little apartment next to Fort Andross for $525 a month.
Now 20, Driscoll graduated from Brunswick High School in 2014, and is working as a certified nursing assistant, administering direct patient care in Bath. She’s set to begin nursing school at Southern Maine Community College in the fall, and plans to transfer to the University of Southern Maine to become a fully credentialed nurse.
Driscoll’s story is unique; most 17-year-olds do not take their lives into their own hands to change the conditions that limit them. But the circumstances of her childhood are not uncommon.
Youth homelessness, hunger, and poverty are rapidly growing in Brunswick. As Driscoll prepares for the 2016 school year, the Brunswick schools and local social service organizations are preparing for what could be a different kind of record year.
Last year, there were more than 40 homeless students in Brunswick schools, up from six in 2007.
The number is probably lower than the actual number of students who experience homelessness in some form. Driscoll, for instance, whose living and work situations often conflicted with her attendance and grades, never reported her struggle to school staff.
“Kids don’t go telling their teachers that they’re homeless, they kind of keep that quiet,” she said.
Rick Wilson, community outreach director at Brunswick High School, essentially said the same thing a year ago, shortly after starting an anonymous, self-serve food pantry at the high school with the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.
The older students are when they experience homelessness, he said, “the more invisible they become.”
The nature of the problem makes it hard to identify. Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin on Tuesday said homelessness does not take just one form.
“We’ve had situations where children have been sleeping in vehicles, or who are doubled up with friends or relatives, sleeping on couches, or in highly mobile situations, due to the lack of affordable housing nearby. There are children and families who live in motel rooms and in campgrounds,” Makin said. “There’s at least one Brunswick student … who has to resort to sleeping in a Portland shelter.”
Social workers and secretaries in the Brunswick schools are trained to “recognize the signs” of homelessness, she said, because it is so rarely self-reported.
Makin, who is also the district’s coordinator for the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the primary legal protection for homeless youth, doesn’t know exactly why the number of homeless students has grown so significantly in recent years. She suspects part of it is past under-reporting.
But another part, she believes, is a “frayed safety net of social support in general.”
As the budgets of other social service organizations and public programs shrink, the pressure on public schools to provide services grows, Makin said.
Other statistics also reflect a trend toward increasing insecurity around basic needs.
In the 2014 school year, the last year data is available from the Maine Department of Education, just under half of all students in Brunswick were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. The metric is often used as a proxy by school officials for identifying how many families are economically disadvantaged.
In comparison, fewer than 25 percent of students qualified for the program in 2007.
Ethan Minton, program manager at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, said the growing need is constantly pushing his organization to expand its offerings.
Mid Coast has established a backpack program in conjunction with the School Department to send kids home with extra food, and is trying to bolster its anonymous, drop-in pantries in the schools, too.
Statewide, one in four children in Maine are food-insecure Minton said, which means that in a typical elementary school class of 20, five struggle with hunger.
These new realities led organizations like Minton’s to “fill the gaps,” for those people who struggle to always have their basic needs met.
People like Driscoll.
Sometimes she would leave home because her mother told her to. Sometimes she left by choice. And when she did, she had a system.
Driscoll’s first option was to crash on a friend’s couch. She’d even make friends just for that purpose.
“I definitely had friends just because they had a place to stay. I had a lot of older friends just because they had apartments,” she said. In one instance, “I’d hang out with this girl I don’t like, and I could sleep on her couch.”
But couch-surfing was not always a guarantee, as the friend’s parents might ask her to leave.
On some of those nights, Driscoll would sleep in an unlocked church. She’d eat breakfast in the basement before early morning services with the parishioners.
They didn’t ask questions, she said, “but they might try to save you.”
Though the sleeping arrangements could be stressful, Driscoll always found camaraderie at school, she said. She knew many other students that were homeless, she said.
Her reaction to the high number of students reported in the Brunswick schools last year: “I’m not surprised.”
Of the people she knew, most were homeless because of domestic strife at home, and were either kicked out by parents, or felt the need to leave. “It’s the way it is, or the way it was at least,” she said.
Even though she has her own apartment now, she said “I actually still know a lot of people in Brunswick that are homeless, and they always ask me where they can go,” she said. “I tell them to shower at the middle school, sleep in the church, and eat at the food bank.”
Driscoll said she had to learn to work the unofficial system because many official doors were closed to her.
“The biggest problem was probably the age limit at all of the shelters. You can’t live in the shelter if you’re a minor … you have to be over 18,” she said. “I don’t know of any place that will legally let you stay there if you’re homeless and you’re a minor.”
It’s not surprising Driscoll couldn’t find a place to stay at her age. Although Tedford Housing, which operates an adult and family shelter in town, operates a youth homelessness program called the Merrymeeting Project, which aims to find shelter for homeless kids, “the need far exceeds the availability,” according to Makin.
The lack of official pathways led Driscoll and her friends into dangerous situations. Some slept outside, under buildings and other structures to avoid the police. Some went to a vacant, rundown building on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, known as “the last house on the left,” where there were frequent parties.
Some even preempted the whole process, going straight to the Police Department.
“I have a lot of friends who have just gone to the police station and said ‘I’m hungry and I’m cold, because I don’t know where to go,'” Driscoll said. According to her, all the police could really do was give the kids a list of places they could eat or sleep – most of which were in Portland, not anywhere near Brunswick.
Brunswick Police Sgt. Paul Hansen on Tuesday confirmed Driscoll’s account.
“If there isn’t somewhere for them to go, to get out of the cold, they’re in the station,” he said. “We have a snack machine in the station, (where we can) get them a protein bar, get them something to eat.”
The on-duty officers provide a list of available services, Hansen said, the primary one being the Preble Street Clinical Intervention Program. Though the program does “amazing work,” he said, it’s connected to the Preble Street shelter, which is in Portland, not Brunswick.
Driscoll, meanwhile, is now 20, and is as independent as ever. She lives in Bath, and is working on getting her driver’s license so she doesn’t have to rely on friends and taxis to get to classes at SMCC.
She still sees her mother every week, but she has her mind set on living on her own. Sitting in Little Dog Coffee Shop, sipping a smoothie while on call for her nursing job, she said her past is her motivation.
“I certainly want better for myself. I love my mom and she worked very hard, but I do not want to live on Section 8 (subsidized housing) for my whole life. I have goals and I want better,” she said. “(Childhood) feels like it was a lot longer ago than it really was. … I feel like I graduated years ago, and it’s only been two.”
Ruth Ann Driscoll, 20, used to spend nights sleeping at an unlocked Brunswick church. Now, she has her own apartment in Bath and works as a certified nursing assistant: “I have goals and I want better.”