BRUNSWICK, Maine — Child homelessness is not supposed to happen here.
Children in affluent, educated communities anchored by top-level private colleges aren’t supposed to go to school hungry, or be without a place to live when classes let out for the day.
But it does happen here, and indications are that things are getting worse.
There are no specific local metrics by which definitively to say that more people are living in their cars or going to bed hungry. But the assistant superintendent of schools has three more homeless students to worry about than he did a week ago, and 13 more than five years ago.
A local teen center director said more young people are coming into the center and consuming an ever-increasing amount of after-school snacks than before.
And representatives from numerous other state and local agencies, whether gathering data or doling out warm meals and blankets, corroborate the bad news: The number of people seeking their help is growing at an alarming rate.
Search for a number
Local advocates say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pin down a defined number of children who need help. This ambiguity, in turn, makes it almost a leap of faith — to determine if any progress is being made.
“There’s no real quantifiable number,” People Plus Executive Director Stacy Frizzle said, “because it’s a hidden population that tries to stay hidden, either because they’re embarrassed or because they’ve been bullied or victimized already.”
State-level advocates for the homeless say quantifying the number of needy youths is made difficult because they are obscured by the more visible kids who are overachieving.
Forty-nine percent of family members that get meals at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program in Brunswick are younger than 18, according to Executive Director Karen Parker.
While that data includes its eight-town service area, it’s too many, she said.
“That’s 836 children,” Parker said. “Sixty percent of the families that come to the food pantry are from Brunswick, so a large percentage of those 836 kids live in Brunswick.”
Because there is no local census to provide a concrete number, the tallying is done either by old-fashioned investigation or seat-of-the-pants observation. “It’s probably a couple of hundred kids in Brunswick,” said Frizzle, who runs The Brunswick Teen Center, which serves youths in grades six through nine as part of the People Plus social service agency in Brunswick.
Frizzle judges the state of Brunswick’s youth by the amount of food they eat during afternoons. Lately, it’s not been good.
“It’s a population that isn’t able to help itself,” Frizzle said. “They’re too old for day care and not old enough to take care of themselves.”
The Center works in partnership with Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, just a few blocks away, to provide snacks to kids getting off the bus from school.
“These kids are eligible for subsidized meals at school, so they go there for breakfast and lunch, then they come to the Teen Center to hang out after school until it’s time to go ‘home,’ wherever that is, for that night,” Frizzle said.
“When they get here, they chow down,” she continued. “Every day we go through gallons of milk, boxes of cereal, crackers and fruit … They generally eat a lot here because they probably aren’t going to eat again until breakfast at school the next morning.”
Greg Bartlett, assistant superintendent of Brunswick School Department, is the district’s designated homeless liaison. It’s his job to take reports from classmates, teachers, police and other adults who might suspect that a peer is without a stable home and investigate them.
It’s not something he took a class in during teachers’ school.
As of Thursday, Brunswick School District officially had 24 homeless students on its books — a gain of three in the last eight days.
In 2008, the district had only six the entire year.
“Sometimes parents call me directly, sometimes it’s reported to me,” Bartlett said. “I look into it, try to verify it, meet with the students and parents involved. We try to get them into school as quickly as we can, then work with Tedford Shelter to try to get them a place to stay.”
Youths don’t have to be homeless for long to land on Bartlett’s list. When they do, numerous local sources are tapped for help, including the Tedford Shelter and Brunswick Rotary International, which try to find suitable temporary lodging for families until they can find jobs, apartments or other normal needs.
“We [teachers] don’t get a lot of training in this area,” Bartlett said.
“From the inside looking out it’s quite shocking,” he said. “There’s no reason that people would be aware of the situations students and their families find themselves in.”
Local and state-level advocates say there’s no single reason. Sometimes it’s a lost job or a seasonal layoff, sickness or injury, or a bad-timing combination of several unrelated factors.
Neither is there a single social segment that is prone to homelessness: It can, and does, happen to anyone.
Despite the abundance of bad news, Bartlett clings to the knowledge that misfortunes are reversible.
“It’s not locked in,” he said. “There are students who are no longer homeless, and there are people who were homeless that are getting back on their feet.
“I’ve got to believe that, of the 24 I’m talking about, some of them no longer are going to be homeless by the next time I have to give a report.”