LEWISTON, Maine — Kendra Sprague, 17, spent a year sleeping on the kitchen floor of her grandmother’s tiny, downtown apartment.
“I used to live with my mom,” she said. She and her brothers moved out after her mother’s boyfriend moved in.
At her grandmother’s, she slept in the kitchen because “it was the only spot left.”
The two bedrooms were taken by a younger brother and an uncle with health problems. Her grandmother and another brother slept on living room recliners.
Her nights on the floor ended in April 2011, after Sprague visited the homeless liaison office at Lewiston High School. Through that office she was put in touch with someone to talk to, and a referral that helped her get into her own apartment through Volunteers of America, which runs a program that provides housing for homeless students.
In the high school’s so-called “store next door,” Sprague was given clothes, food and supplies.
On any given day there are 50 to 100 homeless teenagers like Sprague who live or go to school in Lewiston, said Mary Seaman, who with Jamie Caouette runs the federally funded McKinney-Vento homeless liaison program.
Seaman and Caouette are charged with doing what they can to help homeless students stay in school.
Reserved for the program is a roomful of donated supplies.
There’s cereal, bread, peanut butter, a refrigerator with milk and juice, shampoo, soap and other personal-care items.
Other shelves hold blankets and clothing, including jackets and socks. In bins are notebooks, calculators, pens and pencils.
Students drop in to chat, eat and do homework.
According to federal standards, the definition of a homeless student isn’t “what the media teaches us, the Skid Row perception, someone pushing the cart down the street or living under bridges,” Seaman said.
A homeless student is defined as someone not living with a parent or legal guardian, someone couch surfing with friends or family members where the living situation is not permanent.
“We have people living in cars, in abandoned buildings or substandard housing, families doubled up,” Seaman said.
There are students in households without enough beds.
“Somebody’s sleeping in a recliner, the bathtub, kitchen floor or table, multiple people in the same bed, not by choice,” Seaman said. “It happens all the time.”
Statistics show that for every new school a student moves to, “students lose four to six months of progress.”
In this region “some kids move a dozen times a year,” Seaman said. “You can’t build credits when moving this quickly. You can’t build grades. You don’t move toward graduation.”
Her program gives support that keeps some students in school.
“But we lose more than we keep,” she said.
When teenagers come in saying they have no place to sleep, “we can refer them,” but often all the places are full, Seaman said.
“We try to make sure they’re safe tonight. As school employees, our job is education,” she said.
Their job is to help ensure they have what they need so they can be successful students.
Problems that lead to homeless students include parents who can’t cope when their children tell them they’re gay, or families living in dysfunctional homes, and parents abusing drugs and alcohol.
“The parents give up and can’t take care of their children. They send them out to fend for themselves,” Caouette said.
When she was a Pettengill Elementary School teacher, “I had a fourth-grader whose parent taught them, ‘If you don’t steal the groceries, don’t bother coming home tonight,'” Seaman said.
Several businesses, churches and other organizations have adopted the high school’s homeless program by donating supplies.
What’s needed, in addition to more housing, is understanding that homelessness is a problem in this community and others, Seaman said.
“Acceptance that the situations exist, and not judgment,” Seaman said. She’s heard adults insist that individual homeless students “have perfectly good homes to go to. But what appears on the surface may or may not be indicative of what’s there. It’s not ours to judge. Families crumble all the time.”
Sprague is an honor roll student who plans to go to college and become a doctor. She’s one of Seaman’s success stories.
Her life is better with her own place, but she worries about her brothers.
“I’m in between two households,” she said.
She goes to school, takes care of her own household and goes to her grandmother’s to help with housework and make sure her youngest brother does his homework and has clean clothes for school.
Her grandmother’s health is not good, she said.
The apartment “is so dark and closed in,” Sprague said. “It’s difficult for them.”
© 2012 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)
Distributed by MCT Information Services