Jake was shy at first, responding to my questions with brief answers.

“How long have you been here?”

“Twenty-nine days.”

“How did you happen to come?”

“I got in trouble at school. I brought a BB gun to school.”


“I thought I was going to get jumped, so I brought it there.”

Jake, 14, got kicked out of school and now he is homeless. He has been staying at Halcyon House, an emergency shelter for homeless youths on Middle Road in Skowhegan.

He looks small, sitting alone on a large sofa in the shelter’s living room in his stocking feet, wearing a red plaid shirt and jeans. But he has a lot of loving support from Danielle Morse, the shelter director, and Kerry Falvey, house manager.

They listen from across the room as he describes what it’s like living at Halcyon House.

“I thought it was going to be, like, super strict, but the people aren’t strict here,” said Jake, whose real name I am not using at the request of shelter officials.

“They’re pretty cool. You have quiet time here and you have chores; I’m not used to doing that stuff.”
Jake is a handsome, brown-haired boy with a mischievous smile. I ask what he’s interested in and what he wants to be when he grows up.

“I want to raise reptiles,” he says.

His shyness dissipates as he explains how he has owned ball pythons, a Chinese water dragon, a leopard gecko, bearded dragon lizards and other reptiles.

“When I was in second grade, the zoo keeper came to  my school. He had an owl and a big boa. He had a big bearded dragon, too. That’s how I started liking reptiles.”

Jake wants to own a pet shop one day and create off-shoot businesses, including one that would sell food for reptiles.

“It’s like a whole bunch of businesses in one. So, you can make a lot of money.”

While Jake’s life is complicated and his future uncertain, he has hopes and dreams just like the rest of us.

At Halcyon House, a rural farmhouse, he is learning what Morse and Falvey call life skills — how to manage money, plan and cook meals, clean house and get along with others — things that many of the youths have never been taught.

I ask Jake what he thinks is the important thing he has learned here. I’m surprised and impressed by his answer: “Listening to people.”

Some youths are referred to the 10-bed shelter by the state Department of Health & Human Services or the state Department of Corrections; some are referred by parents; and many just come on their own.

It is a 30-day shelter for 10-to-17-year-olds, but some youths stay longer than that if, for instance, officials cannot find a foster home for them.

Morse and Falvey say they’d take them all home if they could. While staff members try to maintain boundaries, it’s difficult not to care.

“A lot of times, these kids make connections with staff that they don’t make with other people in their lives,” Morse says. “We had a boy one time — he’d look at us and call us ‘Mom.’ He was here just about a year. It’s not typical for us to have kids that long. It breaks my heart when we can’t find a foster home and a kid says, ‘Can’t you just adopt me or can’t I stay with you until I’m 18?’”

Morse, 33, is a registered nurse who works full time at Thayer Campus, MaineGeneral Medical Center, in addition to working 20 hours a week as shelter director.

She explains that she was in nursing school while working here and couldn’t bear to jump ship when she got her nursing degree and landed a full-time job.

And now, especially, she wants to keep close watch on the shelter. While it has been open 33 years, it is in danger of closing.

Morse learned recently that it did not get the federal funding it has received annually from the Runaway Homeless Youth Act.

“Four years ago, our federal funding was over $100,000. Three years ago when we applied, we got $15,000 and we’ve received that amount in the years since. This year, we got no funding.”

Three years ago, full-time staff positions were cut to part-time and benefits eliminated, making it difficult to adequately staff the shelter.

The facility, which is part of Youth & Family Services, operates on funds from United Way of Mid-Maine, Maine’s Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services. Last year it cost $230,000 to operate the shelter.

Morse prays it’ll stay open, but acknowledges there’s a real possibility it could close.

Surely, something here is out of whack. If kids are our best hope for the future, then a wealthy country such as ours ought to be able to help fund a shelter that gives them food, clothing, shelter, guidance — and a little love.

Even 14-year-old Jake understands the logistics of that.

“Other kids might need to go here,” he said.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 23 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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