Homeless youths in central Maine lost a significant source of comfort and security with the closing of Halcyon House in Skowhegan because of a funding shortfall.
The 10-bed shelter, which served 68 youths from 10 counties in the 12 months ending June 30, was projected to lose $120,000 this year, following cuts in federal funding, according to Kennebec Behavioral Health, which operates the shelter. When the agency could not make up the difference by securing competitive grants, the shelter announced last week it was closing.
Youths facing homelessness will now have to go elsewhere, and the remaining options are imperfect. Children who contact Kennebec Behavioral Health will be referred to New Beginnings in Lewiston, which operates the only other 24-hour youth shelter in Maine, about 70 miles from Skowhegan. Bob Rowe, executive director of New Beginnings, said the shelter serves kids from a wide geographical area, sometimes from as far away as Somerset County. But, he added, it is usually better to keep homeless youth near their friends and their school, to cause as little disruption as possible.
Many shelters, like Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, take children only if they are accompanied by an adult. In addition, most shelters are full — the Bread of Life Ministries shelter in Augusta said earlier this year it had been turning away 100 people per month — and almost all are hurting from the same cuts that shuttered Halcyon House. There are other services for homeless youth in the region, but none as available and visible as a 24-hour shelter.
The shelter’s closing — and the spending cuts that caused it — mean in the next year a few dozen homeless children won’t get the services they desperately need. Most come from broken homes. Many have suffered physical or sexual abuse, or are dealing with a disability or mental health problem. They all are at a critical juncture, when intervention by caring adults running organized programs can be the difference between an unstable, unproductive life, and one lived in contribution to society. Moreover, the cost of pulling a homeless teen off the street for good is far less than the long-term cost of leaving that teen on the street indefinitely.
“The alternative is horrific,” said Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries. “They’re going to be in the jails and in the hospitals, costing 50 times more, at least.”
Those are costs the state is likely going to experience. A survey of homelessness in Maine, completed each year as a single-day snapshot, counted 1,175 people homeless on Jan. 30, up from 776 in 2008. The actual number of Mainers who experience homelessness at some point in a year is much larger — the National Center for Family Homelessness found there were 1,997 homeless children alone in Maine in 2010.
In Kennebec County, homelessness has stayed relatively level, with 600-700 unique clients, children and adults, seeking services each year since 2008. But the average number of nights a person spends in a shelter has been increasing in that time, from 27.8 to 36.1 in the county and from 31.6 to 42.1 statewide.
So the closing of Halcyon House comes at a time when the need for a shelter is likely on the rise. Perhaps another agency could step in and take over the space, and be more successful in landing the grants necessary to fund a shelter in today’s fiscal environment.
In the meantime, some homeless youths in central Maine are going to find it harder to access services. And we’ll all pay for it in the long run.