BRUNSWICK — A program working to combat youth homelessness in Brunswick-area school systems has been given a second chance at life after it had to shut down over lost funding.

The Merrymeeting Project, previously a collaboration between Tedford Housing and the Brunswick, Bath-based RSU 1 and Topsham-based MSAD 75 school districts, bridged the gap between home and school, allowing case manager Donna Verhoeven to work with unaccompanied homeless youth. The program helped the students apply for MaineCare or other assistance, cover basic needs, housing, mental health care, clothing, shelter, legal issues and other things school districts aren’t able to address.

Jamie Dorr, left, founder of the Midcoast Community Alliance, and Donna Verhoeven, coordinator of the Merrymeeting Project, announced Friday that Verhoeven was joining the Alliance, allowing it to continue after it lost funding earlier this year. Courtesy photo

A little more than a month since it was forced to shut down, the Merrymeeting Project has been revived under a new partnership with Midcoast Community Alliance, a local agency dedicated to reducing mental health stigma and ending youth suicide.

“It was just a natural fit for Midcoast Community Alliance to host this extremely important service,” said Jamie Dorr, founder of Midcoast Community Alliance. “Bringing this organization — whose sole purpose is serving area youth in need — into the fold of MCA makes sense in every way.”

 

THE SCOPE

The numbers of homeless and at-risk youth in the area have been increasing over the years. Between the three local school districts, the number of students supported under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — a 1987 federal law that provided federal funding for homeless shelters and programs to combat homelessness — increased by 17.5% between 2016 and 2018.

In Brunswick last year, there were 95 homeless students.

In neighboring Maine School Administrative District 75 and Regional School Unit 1, the problem is also on the rise.

This spring, Katie Joseph, assistant superintendent in RSU 1, said most of the district’s 30 to 40 homeless students are from Bath, and numbers of chronically absent or truant students are increasing.

Before the 2008 recession, the majority of MSAD 75 homeless students were in high school, according to Mary Booth, school health coordinator. After that there was a shift, she said earlier, and suddenly 50% were in elementary school. On average, the district now has roughly 50 homeless students per year. It may not seem like many compared with larger communities, she said, but “it’s a lot for the people dealing with it.”

Both youth suicide and youth homelessness are significant — and increasing — problems in Maine, and studies show they are more closely linked than it may appear.

According to a 2018 report from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for Mainers ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause for ages 15 to 34. Among Maine high school students, 15% said that they had seriously considered suicide.

Many factors that can lead to teen homelessness, such as abuse, substance misuse, domestic violence and family instability from death or incarceration, among others, are also considered “adverse childhood experiences,” which can have long term impacts on health and well-being.

The 2019 Maine Kids Count data book found that students with two or more adverse childhood experiences were also more than three times as likely (33% compared to 9%) to have seriously considered suicide than students who had one or no such experiences.

A report from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness used data from the CDC’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey to explore risk behaviors and health outcomes between students experiencing homelessness and those who were not, and found that 27% of homeless high school students have considered suicide compared to 12% of their peers. The report also found that homeless high school students were more than three times more likely to have attempted suicide than students who were not homeless.

 

SAVING THE MERRYMEETING PROJECT

Last year, the purpose of the grant that funded the Merrymeeting Project changed, and it was doled out based on the school’s overall needs assessment, Verhoeven said at the time. Of the schools that applied, only one received any funding, so the Department of Education put out another request for proposals and gave schools the opportunity to fix their applications.

This time, the Merrymeeting Project steering committee members decided not to reapply and instead pursued, but failed, to obtain another grant. Since more schools still did not qualify through the second application process, the department decided to distribute the funds among all the districts that submitted a second proposal. Neither Tedford nor the school districts were able to afford the $59,000 grant on their own, and the project had to cease.

With the help of Midcoast Community Alliance though, Verhoeven, the districts and the students she works with have renewed hope.

“Over the past 20 years in MSAD 75, Donna has helped unaccompanied homeless students find safe places to live, do laundry and navigate the legal system,” Booth said in a press release. “She has helped homeless families with young children living in cars or tents find safe places to live and fill out applications for supportive programs they were not aware existed.

“Ultimately, the outcome of this work is a stability that results in improved school attendance and graduation rates,” she added. “The challenges facing these students and their families are vast and complex, and schools can only do a fraction of what is needed to help.”

They plan to pursue more grant opportunities, but to ensure the program’s future success, Verhoeven and Dorr have established an initial $45,000 fundraising goal, though they hope to exceed that.

“Grant money typically only covers certain things — but it doesn’t cover things like helping a student get their driver’s license, or cell phone cards or paying for legal documents,” Verhoeven said in the release. “There is never really ‘enough’ money.”

Verhoeven and Dorr are seeking three-year community sponsorships and so far have raised $30,000.

Anyone interested in sponsorships can contact Dorr at 443-6856 or visit the Midcoast Community Alliance website.


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