It’s the kind of story that you hope makes everyone stop, put everything else aside, and work tirelessly until something is done.

The number of kids in Maine who are living alone on the streets is on the rise. As Vanessa Paolella of the Sun Journal reported March 5, they face an immediate and intense struggle to get by day to day, and little hope for a better future.

Noah Nelson sits in the living room of New Beginnings’ Marian’s House in Lewiston. The house provides 24-hour emergency housing and support for youths ages 10 to 19 years old who have either run away, or are homeless or facing intense family conflict. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But youth homelessness is a symptom of some of Maine’s most difficult challenges — poverty, substance abuse, a lack of affordable housing — and while people are working every day to overcome them, solutions to those big problems seem far away.

So let’s make them smaller.

Just as military veterans are given access to programs tailored specifically to their needs, so too should be homeless youth, particularly those who are estranged from their families.

As Paolella reports, most kids experiencing homelessness live with their families, often in hotels, shelters, or with friends or relatives.


But, experts say, about 17% of them are not in anyone’s custody, having separated from their parents or foster care.

Those teenagers often have little choice but to leave. They are in families steeped in poverty, many of whom struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. They are victims of the housing crisis and the lack of mental health treatment, both of which contribute to family instability.

It’s particularly bad for teens whose gender or sexual identity doesn’t fit with their families’ expectations; they are less likely to have other forms of community support, and far more likely to end up homeless.

Things don’t get much better once they leave. Most homeless youth report being assaulted on the street, and many are exploited in exchange for money, food or shelter. They are more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs to cope. They are far less likely to graduate from high school.

Those kids never get the chance to get going. It is such a waste, and one that echoes through time — today’s homeless kids often become tomorrow’s unstable parents, perpetuating the cycle for another generation.

That’s the bad part.


The good part is that the number of homeless youth — about 2,000 total — is small enough to wrap our hands around. The number of unaccompanied homeless youth is even smaller.

By focusing on that population, Maine can make a real difference in the future of these kids and their communities.

Already there are people and institutions working to help homeless youth, but all agree it’s not enough.

Maine needs lower barriers and more options for shelter for teens. Many homeless teens, because of the trauma of their past, have trouble adhering to rules and structure; that must be taken into account, so that kids aren’t driven away from help.

There is also not enough short-term housing to help teens transition from homelessness, nor is there enough help available in the areas they need it most: transportation, counseling, education and job training.

Additional help should be steered toward kids in foster care, as well. More than half of Maine’s unaccompanied homeless youth were in the foster system, which regularly leaves kids without familial support or a place to live once they turn 18.


Lawmakers should take seriously a bill this session that would extend MaineCare coverage to foster kids up to age 27, ensuring they have health insurance, as well as one that would waive higher education tuition for children in foster care.

Both would help Maine teens age out of foster care with more support and help avoid homelessness in the first place.

The bills are also a good opportunity for legislators to discuss the youth homelessness problem and see where else gaps may exist.

Not too long ago, people decided that every veteran should have a home. It became an intense focus for housing advocates, and it worked, cutting veteran homelessness in half over six years.

We should do the same for homeless youth, so that they have a chance at the kind of future we all want.


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