ROCKLAND, Maine — Between Christmas 2001 and Thanksgiving 2008, more than 200 teenagers without a safe, warm and dry place to sleep found temporary refuge in a Rockland shelter for homeless youth.
Since the closure of the Breakwater Emergency Homeless Teen Shelter, a network of volunteers and social service workers have connected Rockland-area teens who needed a stable place to spend the night with host families.
But the need is still there, even if it is less visible.
So on Saturday night — the last night of winter — several dozen people gathered in a Rockland park for a “campathon” to raise awareness and money for a more permanent housing solution for homeless youth in the midcoast.
“It’s not that the problem of youth homelessness has gone away because the shelter closed. It’s just gone underground,” Jack Carpenter, a member of the organization Knox Interfaith Teen Safe Havens, or KITS, told the crowd.
Saturday night’s campathon was organized primarily by members of KITS, which connects homeless youth with host families, and another group, the Where Do I Go Now? Teen Homelessness Awareness Project, which goes by the abbreviation WDIGN.
About 20 people solicited donations or sponsorships to camp overnight in a small, grassy park on Main Street in downtown Rockland. Campers and other supporters listened to speakers and musicians, enjoyed potluck or donated food and huddled around a trash-can bonfire as the temperature dipped toward the freezing point.
Among those planning to spend the night in a tent was Rhonda Nordstrom, a member of WDIGN and an organizer of Saturday’s fundraiser. Nordstrom said there is growing sensitivity about the plight of homeless youth in the Rockland area but that there needs to be greater, communitywide awareness of the problem.
Because Maine is a rural state, the state’s homelessness problem is often harder to spot than in larger cities. Homeless teens are frequently even less visible because resourceful young people often “couch surf” — crashing on sofas or floors in the homes of friends or acquaintances.
“The hope is to eventually have a residential facility where kids can go instead of having to find individual places” to spend the night, Nordstrom said. “The really wonderful thing would be to have a farm so kids can learn.”
Teens without a stable home life are less likely to regularly attend or perform well in school and are at higher risk of dropping out. Young people living a more transient lifestyle may engage in riskier behavior, and some speakers said Saturday that there are unseemly individuals in the Rockland area who are more than willing to take in young boarders in exchange for drugs, sex or other forms of payment.
There are many reasons teens may end up homeless, according to Pinny Beebe-Center, regional director for Penquis CAP in Knox County. Some are fleeing alcohol, drug or physical abuse at home, while others end up on the street because of the family’s economic problems. Others are running away for personal reasons.
During its seven-year run, the Breakwater teen shelter provided more than 5,800 “bed nights” and served in excess of 11,000 meals before the city-owned building that housed the facility was sold and the shelter was forced to move.
At the time, the organization running the shelter, Home Counselors Inc., said the costs of renovating a new facility, licensing requirements, ongoing operating deficits and the economic downturn prohibited the nonprofit from reopening elsewhere.
In the days after the shelter closed, many of the would-be clients were gathering in specific areas downtown, Beebe-Center said.
KITS came into being soon thereafter with the goal of allowing homeless teens to stay in participating churches during the winter months. But that plan fell through because of code problems.
So KITS has turned to individual host families for help with the goal of providing the teens with enough stability to encourage them to stay in school, Beebe-Center said.
Nordstrom said Saturday evening it was too early to say how much money the campathon would raise but indicated it would be an ongoing fundraising effort.
Speaking to the crowd, Rockland District High School Assistant Principal Bill Gifford said he sees firsthand the deleterious effects when young people do not have a regular place to live and sleep.
Tackling teen homelessness, Gifford said, is not the job of the schools, the city, the police or even the individuals gathered in the chilly night air. Instead, it will take a community effort, he said.
“This is the job of all of us,” Gifford said.
For more information about the Where Do I Go Now? Teen Homelessness Awareness Project, contact Rhonda Nordstrom at 594-5077, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the organization’s Facebook page.