Homelessness is a national tragedy for the United States. Statistics provided by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated that in 2017 nearly 645,000 people were homeless in the United States. One study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates homelessness among youth to range from 500,000 to 2.8 million.

In Maine, the homeless population was estimated to be 2,280 in 2017, which represents 370 families. This figure, like the national figure, is considered extremely low by advocates for the homeless.

When the homelessness issue is raised, people often think of adults carrying all their possessions with them and sleeping in parks and alleys, on sidewalks, and under bridges. Maine has shelters for the homeless, primarily in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, but the number of beds statewide is woefully inadequate.

There is a population of homeless people, however, that is hidden and unnoticed. This group is made up of youth under the age of 18, who cannot use existing shelters because they are not accompanied by an adult.  The largest increase in homelessness in the nation has occurred in those under the age of 18. Nationally, homelessness in this group increased 7.4% between 2010 and 2017. In Maine homelessness among children increased 52% between 2008 and 2016.

In Maine, one survey found 279 in-school homeless youth. However, this figure represents only students who were in school and admitted to being homeless — the real number could be much higher.

On the local level, in Gardiner school authorities estimate the number of homeless students to be between eight and 10 on any given night. They couch surf in friends’ homes, or sleep in dugouts or any other structure that provides shelter. Most homeless youth are too embarrassed to admit to anyone that they are homeless or hungry.   While many could be eligible for free lunch, they do not want the rest of the school population to know about their dire circumstances. In addition, many do not believe that they could obtain the required paperwork and signatures.

There are many different reasons for homelessness among youth, many of which can be attributed to dysfunctional families — the opioid crisis, domestic abuse, mental health issues, bullying, gender identification, etc. Kennebec County has the second largest percentage of victims of abuse and neglect among children and adults; it is exceeded only by Somerset County.  Youth experience traumatizing effect from abuse that can last a lifetime.

The impact of homelessness on youth is devastating. Many drop out of school, and many are distracted from learning. Without a high school diploma, their opportunities for meaningful work are bleak.

 Central Maine area, especially Kennebec County, needs to address the challenging issue of homeless youth.   There are two primary approaches to resolving this problem.

One approach is the host homes approach, whereby a well-intentioned family “takes in” a homeless youth. However, caregivers and volunteers are needed, and difficult to get.

The second approach is the youth homeless shelter.  The greatest challenge to this approach is cost. A homeless shelter needs to be staffed 24 hours a day. It needs to be able to provide meals and transportation. It needs to acquire liability insurance, which is also expensive. There is a homeless shelter for youth in Lewiston, which accepts youth from other areas.  Homeless students, however, are reluctant to travel outside their hometowns, where their friends are located and where they know the schools and school counselors.

The tragic problem of homeless youth requires the input of many people from different walks of life.  The Host Homes Coalition of Gardiner tried for nearly a year to address this problem locally. It is a problem that exceeds the capability of such a small group in this community to solve the problem. As a result, this group has disbanded.

Homelessness is a challenge that could best be addressed by an organization with sufficient resources that can bring together other organizations such as law enforcement, school officials, homeless shelter personnel, case workers, mental health professionals, and drug treatment centers.  The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has this ability, but there needs to be an impetus from the people of Maine to make this happen.

The Host Homes Coalition recommends that individuals and child advocacy organizations contact their legislators, community leaders, neighbors and friends, and advocate for a homeless shelter for youth in the greater Augusta region and in the western Kennebec County area.  A homeless shelter would go a long way to improve the quality of life for many homeless youth.

Edward Potter lives in Gardiner., 582-1834, Gardiner – for the former Host Homes Coalition of Gardiner

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