In November, when the hours of daylight are fading rapidly, and frost and cold nights remind us that winter is near, most of us start to settle into the comforts of our homes. Here in Maine, we are particularly aware that the warm season is ending and feverishly prepare for the long cold months ahead. This is especially – acutely – true for people experiencing homelessness in our community.

Leah McDonald shows a room at Preble Street’s Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter before it fills with homeless teens for the night. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, File

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, and for good reason. The reality of winter begs us to shift our attention to our most vulnerable neighbors. Youth and young adults who are experiencing homelessness not only lose their home, but often also lose their community, friends, family and any sense of stability, predictability and safety in their lives.

Too often, youth homelessness is overlooked or undetected because it is largely an invisible problem: Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are fiercely independent and often create or adopt necessary survival skills such as couch surfing, staying with friends or living out of a vehicle. Many young people who are homeless fall under the radar of official counting efforts, resulting in large data gaps and chronically underfunded services. In 2020, 30 percent of Maine’s homeless population was under age 24, including 139 unaccompanied youth and young adults, according to official counts. However, youth service providers agree that these numbers are likely a substantial underestimate of the reality in Maine.

Preble Street Teen Services provides low-barrier access to shelter, food, basic needs, mental health supports, education and employment services, and an array of housing options for youth between the ages of 12 and 24 experiencing homelessness in Maine. We work with youth who have run away from home to escape horrifically abusive and neglectful situations. We work with unaccompanied asylum-seekers who often arrive in Portland alone knowing little English, having fled geopolitical turmoil in their home country and often having experienced excruciatingly traumatic events during their journey. One in four of the youth we serve identify as LGBTQIA+, a population that is 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQIA+ peers. They are young people who have fallen into homelessness for a wide variety of reasons and often have no other options.

No two stories are the same: from young people who have experienced generational poverty and homelessness (youth experiencing poverty have a 162 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness) to youth who have multi-systems involvement (the child welfare and mental health systems in Maine struggle with waitlists and a lack of adequate placements, often leading to unnecessary placement at juvenile justice facilities or homelessness) to youth struggling with mental illness or substance use disorder. Additionally, runaway and homeless youth are among the populations most vulnerable to human trafficking.

The scope of this problem is daunting, but substantial efforts are underway in Maine to address it. A broad group of partners across various sectors and youth with lived experience of homelessness are working together to create a youth-led, comprehensive plan to end youth homelessness in Maine. With new federal funding available, we are working our way toward that goal.

To break the cycle of homelessness, youth and young adults need an integrated system of care and safety. Preble Street Teen Services is proud to work with other youth-serving organizations throughout Maine to provide mobile outreach to youth in their community of choice and rapidly resolve episodes of homelessness. We are proud to be able to provide multiple pathways to housing through transitional living and rapid re-housing programs. Most importantly, we are proud to work alongside young people who are the experts on their own experiences and to support them toward their goals of independence, stability and safety.

As Amanda, who relied on the Preble Street Teen Center, said, “I was thankful this was available to me because I’m not sure what I would’ve done or who I could’ve gone to in that time.”

This November, please consider supporting an organization in your community that is working to end youth homelessness in Maine. Together, we can make this happen.

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