BRUNSWICK, Maine — The numbers of youth taking advantage of the Merrymeeting Project have remained stable over the past several years, but the age of homeless students taking advantage has dropped in recent years.
“For my project, we serve school-age students, predominantly high school students that are couch surfing,” said Donna Verhoeven, director of the Merrymeeting Project. “I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now and the numbers have been about the same. The ages are getting younger though.”
Her program sees between 35 and 40 homeless students, usually between the ages of 14 and 17, throughout the year, most of them are doubled up with family members or friends. She said that she believes there are even more young people in the community that aren’t being reached.
“There’s a stigma associated with identifying yourself as homeless,” she said. “These kids want to run under the radar because they don’t want to be reported; they want to blend. Go to school and do their thing.”
Verhoeven said that the major impetus for the upward trend in youth homelessness is family issues such as eviction or abuse.
John Bradley, associate director of Preble Street in Portland agreed, saying that a major factor has to do with the family unit.
“Families are under a lot of stress and issues or concerns with substance abuse and mental health can really fracture families,” he said. “It’s also exacerbated by a lot of what is going on in the economy that puts stress on families that are already struggling.”
Additionally, both Verhoeven and Bradley said that there are not as many resources in place to help teens as there are for adults.
“There are more services for adults that are homeless,” Verhoeven said. “It is difficult to house a teenager and give them the support they need.”
Preble Street’s Lighthouse Shelter and Teen Center have also seen an increase in activity over the past several years. In the month of June, the Lighthouse Shelter saw 43 unduplicated youth and took in 11 new homeless youth while 29 were turned away due to the shelter’s 16-bed capacity.
“We’re in the process of expanding our size from 16 beds to 24 because we’ve had to turn youth away,” Bradley said. “We only turn away 18 or over, anyone 17 or under is always a priority. The older kids can go to another shelter.”
Bradley said there are several programs in place between the teen shelter and the teen drop-in center that focus on meeting the needs of homeless youth. The shelter offers young people a place to stay while the teen center focuses more on creating and fostering relationships that can help young people transition out of homelessness.
Similar to Preble Street’s Teen Center, the Merrymeeting Project focuses on maintaining positive relationships with the students they serve.
“We try to look at them holistically.” said Verhoeven. “Even though my program is education-based we look at the whole student. They are not going to thrive if they don’t have the basic pieces of their life put together or planned for.”
During the intake process at Merrymeeting, students from RSU 1, SAD 75 and the Brunswick School Department talk with employees about all “life arenas” and pinpoint ways that they would be able to life on their own and support themselves.
Where appropriate, some students are reunited with their families, but the major goal of the project is to keep kids safe and in school — to make sure they have post secondary plans or a support plan so they can be connected with appropriate services.
“We take baby steps,” said Verhoeven. “A lot of these kids have been disappointed by many adults during their lives. We’re careful about maintaining a positive relationship with students.”