Maine 9th-best in nation caring for homeless youth, report says

Posted March 10, 2009, at 8:23 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Maine’s homeless youth have more services available to them than many of their counterparts around the country, according to a report released Tuesday.

But the report from the National Center on Family Homelessness warned that a weak economy could push the number of homeless children higher nationwide without quick government and community action.

About one in 50 children in the United States is homeless, according to the center, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization that studies and advocates solutions for youth homelessness.

It estimated more than 1.5 million children accompanied by a guardian go homeless each year, not counting the 575,000 to 1.6 million youth who sleep away from home because they are runaways or shut out.

In Maine, the report found 2,103 homeless children. That’s less than 1 percent of the state’s youth population.

The survey did not just count families in shelters or on the street. About half of homeless children are living in often crowded houses or apartments with relatives or family friends.

New England states ranked among the best in the nation for preventing and combating child homelessness, with Maine earning the ninth-best rating.

Connecticut ranked first.

Maine was one of six states highlighted for its “extensive” state support of homeless families through its 10-year plan on homelessness.

Officials dealing with homelessness in Maine meet each month to ensure services are reaching all families that need them, said Shawn Yardley, director of Bangor’s Health and Community Services department. Still, he said the number of homeless families could be underreported among some of the families that stay in other people’s houses.

“While I think it’s good that people take care of their neighbors or relatives, I would not want people to have the false sense that those numbers are lower than they are,” Yardley said.

Helping homeless youth adjust to their new environments is critical, Yardley said. New schools can be as jarring as temporary housing, he said, and without school liaisons to help them, uprooted youths will continue to lag behind their peers.

“We all know the consequences of underrealized potential in young people,” he said.

Texas scored the worst in the survey, largely because poverty levels in Southern states are often double the rates in the North, said Dr. Ellen Bassuk, president of the center.

“It’s a very deep problem,” Bassuk said during a conference call with reporters. “There isn’t a place in the nation where a mom working full time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment.”

The wave of foreclosures hitting the United States this year gives added urgency to providing families with stable homes, the report said. Bassuk urged the federal government to boost funding for housing vouchers, emergency shelters and food stamps to head off an increase in the number of families shut out from their homes by economic circumstances.

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