WATERVILLE — The day Veronica Larson checked into the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, the 23-year-old single mother felt as though she’d hit rock bottom.
After graduating from high school and aging out of the foster care system, she was just barely scraping through life by working two low-wage jobs in the area.
Being at the shelter helped her realize she had more options and there were services available, something she wished she’d had when she was younger.
Betty Palmer, the shelter’s executive director, has another perspective on young people in the shelter.
Wednesday morning, she had to deal with three young men, all in their late teens, who were struggling with problems most people their age don’t have to deal with.
“These are people that have burned every bridge and used every resource that they have,” she said. “Nobody comes to the shelter the first time something goes wrong. They come to us last.”
Palmer handled those problems before arriving at a community center conference room, where about 40 of the area’s best and brightest civic and social work leaders came together for a discussion.
Their mission: Solve youth homelessness in the area, by any means possible, in one hour.
The activity was part of the Greater Waterville Forum on Youth Homelessness, where small groups of attendees brainstormed strategies in an ongoing war against a social problem that involves battles on many different fronts.
Their new agenda reflects their consensus that the area’s homeless children have many critical needs, but the most critical are mentorship, job training and housing.
The prioritized need for youth housing was a given. The region’s only emergency shelter for youths, Skowhegan’s 10-bed Halcyon House, closed in September.
Halcyon House provided housing, food and clothing to about 70 youths a year and was the most visible effect of a $329,000 reduction to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Emergency Solutions Grants program.
That cut, felt keenly by the state’s 40 housing shelters, is just one reason debates on youth homelessness have grown increasingly urgent in recent years.
Three years ago, a similar forum in Waterville focused on educating the community, because many attendees found that one of the largest obstacles was the fact that people didn’t know youth homelessness was a local issue.
Now the problem is widespread enough that it can’t be ignored. A 2010 report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found there were 1,997 homeless children in Maine in 2010.
Closer to home, Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which administers high schools in Waterville and Winslow, reported that 68 families with children were homeless during the last school year.
A snapshot survey by the Maine State Housing Authority found that 1,175 people, including 169 children, were living in shelters on a particular night in 2013. Over the course of a year, the number of people seeking shelter housing is about six times greater, or 7,700, according to the authority.
The problem of youth homelessness is familiar to the experts assembled in Waterville’s REM Center.
Sponsors of the event included the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter; the United Way of Mid-Maine, which announced in December that it was tackling youth homelessness as a major agenda item in 2014; the Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers; and Kennebec Behavioral Health, which has served 368 homeless youths since Feb. 1.
Attendees included members of those groups and also others with an interest in improving the community, such as MaineGeneral Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, Fairfield Councilor John Picchiotti, Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey and Waterville Rotary Club President Peter Garrett.
After workshops and discussion, the group agreed on three major goals.
The first was to re-establish an emergency shelter for youth in the area.
Some housing for homeless people in the area is geared toward families that include parents and children. Families are accepted at the 48-bed Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter; the 16-bed Western Maine Homeless Outreach operated in the basement of the Living Waters Assembly of God Church in Farmington; a shelter at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Skowhegan; and New Hope Shelter in Solon, which announced plans last month to expand from 12 to 32 beds.
However, children who don’t have active parents in their lives often have either impractical options or none at all.
When Halcyon House closed, area children were referred to the state’s only other emergency homeless shelter for students. That shelter, New Beginnings, is in Lewiston, 70 miles away from Halcyon House and whatever meager local support network the region’s homeless youths are likely to have.
Brandi Farrington, who served as the executive director at Halcyon House, said the loss of the house is a daunting obstacle to serving the population.
“We tried so hard to get the home going, and we all felt like that was a really important endeavor and that didn’t go well,” she said. “There’s not enough beds, and that’s a huge issue.”
Farrington said that with many of their basic needs unmet, too many of the children she served never got to the point that they could begin mastering basic life skills.
“We’re not doing a good job of making sure that they know how to hit the ground running,” she said.
The second major goal that came out of the forum is to bolster the Youth Empowerment Through Employment program, which works with 20 at-risk teens from Waterville and Winslow high schools to give them the skills they need to find employment. Over the course of 18 school weeks, they learn everything from money management to interview skills. They then get on-the-job training from area employers over the summer.
Without access to those kinds of services, it can be difficult for a homeless teen to succeed.
Larson, for instance, never had stability in her life when she was a child.
After graduating from high school and aging out of the foster care system, she was just barely scraping by in life by working two low-wage jobs in the area.
Soon after she became pregnant, she fell prey to what she calls “a lot of unfortunate events,” a cascade of miseries that unfolded over the course of just a few months.
She lost one of her jobs, at Tim Hortons. Then she got hit by a car, leaving her in such pain she no could longer walk comfortably. Unable to work, she lost her other job, at Jo-Ann Fabrics.
“It was a bad patch for me,” she said.
With no family other than an infant son and no support network in the area, Larson found herself with no way to pay the rent and nowhere to turn for help.
“When you can’t pay the rent, it’s not a good feeling,” she said. “You feel like you’ve failed your kid.”
So she went to the Mid-Maine homeless shelter. “If I wasn’t thinking of him, I probably wouldn’t have gone into the shelter,” she said.
She said being at the shelter helped her to become aware of and gain access to a wider range of resources. Many teens, she said, don’t want to hear messages about how they can improve their lives.
“I remember when I was 16 or 17, I thought I knew everything,” she said. “They don’t understand how severe or dangerous it is to be homeless.”
Now Larson is living in an apartment provided through a housing program run by Kennebec Behavioral Health. It’s modest but stable, she said, and it has allowed her to set her sights on working toward a better situation for herself and her son, who is now 1. If she can recover fully from her injuries and somehow juggle life as a single mother with a career, she would like to undergo vocational training to learn how to be an automotive mechanic.
But even with access to housing and career training, many young homeless people are grappling with their worst enemy — the lack of confidence that can come with deep-seated family dysfunction.
“It’s all anecdotal, but at least 80 to 90 percent of the kids coming through our doors had some sort of trauma,” Farrington said. “About 25 percent were dealing with gender identity and sexuality issues.”
The complexity and depth of the problem was made evident in remarks from Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, which provided services for 73 youths between 18 and 24 years old in 2013.
Before she left the shelter to get to the forum, which started at 8 a.m., she already had dealt with three crises involving young people.
“This morning, there’s an 18-year-old who does not want to go take a (General Educational Development test) to get his diploma,” she said. Palmer described him as having a temper tantrum during which he knocked over food on the table.
“He’s freaking out over breakfast, but I know it’s really about he’s terrified of taking that test,” she said. “Imagine, your whole future hinges on two tests that morning and you have to pass, but you’re not confident that you can do it.”
Just as Palmer got him calmed down, a 19-year-old who’d spent the morning snapping at people and racking up warnings from an exasperated staff escalated to the point that he would lose his bed in the shelter that evening.
Palmer knew that conflict, too, was the result of underlying problems.
It was this teen’s first day at a new job. He was dressed in uncomfortable clothes that were foreign to him, and he was worried about how he would do in a work environment.
“He’s just a desperate 19-year-old in a panic,” Palmer said. She took him aside and guaranteed that he wouldn’t lose his bed in the shelter that evening and then confronted him with her theory, that the real problem was first-day-on-the-job fears.
When a young person’s emotions threaten to derail his or her future, a parent often steps in and provides the guidance and stability needed to work through the moment; but this teen’s parents were nowhere in sight.
“Don’t let anybody take your power today,” Palmer told him. “You’re a brilliant young man and you’ve got a great job.”
Before that teen got out the door for his first day at work, another teen announced that he wasn’t going to school, and Palmer was on to the next situation that needed the attention of someone who cares.
“Today, I was a shelter mother,” Palmer said.
Palmer said the homeless teens need more than a roof over their heads and a meal in their stomachs. They need direction, and sometimes the teens at the shelter need more attention than the limited staff can provide.
“We need people to reach into these lives that are broken from the economy, from a family life that is dysfunctional, from growing up in homes where the addiction was more important than the children,” she said. “We need healthy adults to stand there and walk beside our youths, to be there for them so they know there is somebody safe they can lean on.”
The final goal set at the forum was to fill some portion of that hole in the lives of young people by providing more mentoring services.
That goal rang true to Larson, who said that during her bout with homelessness, she saw just how complex the issue could be.
Her own conclusions, based on her personal experiences, were strikingly similar to those of the room full of experts.
“Try to give as much support as you possibly can,” she said. “Let them know that you’re there for them.”