‘This will close us’

Posted Dec. 05, 2008, at 6:49 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Come April, Sally Tardiff may have to tell eight teenagers to pack their bags.

The problem is, the teens likely won’t have anywhere else to go but the street.

Tardiff oversees Mason Place, a transitional housing facility and one of the many programs offered through the Shaw House, a nonprofit shelter for homeless youth in Greater Bangor.

The housing program has been funded for 20 years primarily through Medicaid reimbursement, but Tardiff and Shaw House Executive Director Carol Whitney learned recently that planned federal cuts to that type of Medicaid will affect Mason Place.

More specifically, the funding that covers 75 percent of Mason Place’s budget will dry up April 1.

“This will close us,” Whitney said flatly. “For children who can’t live in systems of foster care or [state] custody, this is the way for them to survive.”

Whitney has pleaded with the state Department of Health and Human Services to step in and add nearly $200,000 to its budget next year to keep Mason Place open. Most of that covers personnel, including case managers and counselors who work closely with the residents, she said.

DHHS spokesman John Martins confirmed Thursday that a request has been added to the budget for Mason Place, but he stressed that the budget is very much in flux and may not be decided for months.

“It’s a tough time from the national level on down,” he said. “A lot of programs are suffering and have had to make some significant adjustments across all levels. For us, we try to be as surgical as possible and look at everything.”

Tardiff, Whitney and others responsible for Mason Place have their fingers crossed but are justifiably skeptical.

“It’s an argument that makes sense,” Tardiff said of funding the program, which is the only one of its kind in the Bangor area. “But the people who need to hear that argument sometimes don’t.”

“DHHS says it doesn’t have money, but what people don’t realize is that it will end up costing taxpayers more money in the long run if these kids turn out to be chronically homeless,” Whitney added. “That’s a simple logistical problem that people don’t understand.”

Homeless teens age 14 to their 19th birthday are eligible for the Mason Place program, which is named for former Shaw House worker Bill Mason. Food is provided as well as shelter. Teens are encouraged to work and save their money for life after they leave Mason Place, Tardiff said.

Cassandra Means, 20, moved to Maine from Rhode Island several years ago after her mother died. She initially lived with her father but said that didn’t work out.

“I had heard about [the Shaw House], so I showed up one day,” she said Thursday from the three-story brick building on Hammond Street. “This was the closest thing I had to a family.”

When she turned 18, Means moved upstairs to Mason Place, which has eight individual rooms and common living areas. Residents have strict responsibilities and goals that lead — it is hoped — to a life of self-sufficiency. Means, who now has her own apartment in Bangor, said if not for Mason Place, she doesn’t know where she would be.

“I think about that sometimes,” she said. “But it’s not just me. A lot of kids would be in that situation.”

Tardiff said that within the past two years, as many as 20 teenagers have come through Mason Place. Many have made the transition into the Waterworks housing facility on State State, which also is run by Shaw House.

Josh Andrade, 18, has been living at Mason Place since May. He left home at age 15 and was living in a group home for nearly three years. When he turned 18, he still wasn’t quite ready to make it on his own.

“It was like, where do I go now,” he said Thursday at Mason Place. “Luckily, I found this place.”

Andrade said he plans to stay until he graduates from high school next June. By then, he hopes to be looking at college options.

“If I wasn’t living here, I don’t think I’d be talking about that,” he said.

Seven teens now live at Mason Place. Interviews are taking place to fill the eighth spot. Three teens are on a waiting list, Tardiff said.

Whitney said Mason Place bridges a gap that allows some teenagers to avoid a perpetual life on the street.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the culture of the street,” she said. “When you get into an adult shelter, sometimes you never get out. We don’t want that to happen with these kids. We can show them another way.”

Martins said he’s sympathetic to the plight of programs like Mason Place.

“What will happen as this progresses — and we have seen in the past — is that people will come and state their case,” he said. “And sometimes their case is very impassioned.”

Whitney said she already has been to Augusta and plans to return as many times as it takes. Tardiff said she hopes to resolve the issue without displacing any of her residents.

“The last thing they need is something else to worry about,” she said. “We’ll worry for them.”

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