AUGUSTA, Maine — An Auburn woman joined iconic 1980s pop singer Cyndi Lauper, among others, Wednesday when she testified before a congressional committee in Washington on the issue of youth homelessness in the United States.
Brittany Dixon spoke to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations subcommittee about her experience with homelessness in Maine, urging lawmakers to support legislation that funds federal programs for homeless teens.
“During the summer after my senior year in high school, I found myself in a situation with nowhere to go,” Dixon told the panel chaired by U.S. Sen Susan Collins, R-Maine. “After a final dispute with my mother, she told me to leave and made me homeless at the age of 18.”
Collins has been working to pass a bill that would reauthorize funding for a variety of programs that help homeless youth in Maine and across the nation.
So far, Collins has been unable to advance her bill that is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.
The measure has stalled as federal lawmakers dispute whether those who operate the programs should have to provide services to teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Collins said an amendment that disallows discrimination based on sexual orientation gained the support of 56 members of the Senate but fell short of two-thirds 60-vote majority it needed to pass.
Lauper, an advocate for homeless LGBT youth, also spoke in favor of the measure.
On Wednesday, Dixon said she benefited from a number of the programs, which helped her get off the streets and built stability in her life. She said through SAFE Voices, a local domestic violence hotline, she was connected to the nonprofit New Beginnings, which provides emergency services and transitional housing for young people throughout Maine.
Those programs are supported in part by the federal government and are among the programs Collins is working to get Congress to refund.
“Nothing can prepare a teenager for the overwhelming and frightening feelings of being alone and having nowhere to go and no one to turn to after losing the sense of safety and security that having a place to call home can provide,” Dixon said.
By working with New Beginnings, Dixon was able to find and keep a job, apply for college and financial aid and learned how to access affordable, healthy food. The programs also helped her acquire health insurance, taught her to use a budget to pay her rent on time and to save money and search for bargains.
“New Beginnings has helped me to develop critical life skills to become self-sufficient,” Dixon said. “I have even learned how to bake, which I wasn’t able to do growing up. I never knew how much fun baking can be.”
Dixon said the biggest thing New Beginnings helped her with was with her self-esteem.
“When I first entered the program, it seemed like I was apologizing every 10 seconds or so because I thought everything was my fault,” Dixon said.
Working with her caseworker, Dixon said she discovered that she wasn’t a burden and she was only responsible for the things she could control.
Dixon said through the program she learned better communication skills and grew confident in making the right decisions for herself. She worked her way through community college and eventually ended up graduating from the University of Maine at Farmington in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
She works full time as an education technician at the Washburn Elementary School in Auburn and is hoping to become a kindergarten teacher when a position opens, she told the committee.
“I no longer need rental assistance because I can afford to live in my own apartment,” Dixon said.
She said the programs like the ones she was able to benefit from were critical for homeless teens.
“I didn’t need to be supported forever, only until I could move to the next level for myself,” Dixon said.
During a short telephone interview with the Sun Journal on Wednesday afternoon, Collins said she remained optimistic that she would gain the support she needs to reauthorize the federal funding for the programs.
She said Dixon’s testimony was not only touching but important because it puts a real person’s story ahead of the numbers lawmakers sometimes get caught up in.
“She really was the star of the hearing,” Collins said. “She put a human face on all the statistics.”
Collins also said that one of Lauper’s staff members had toured youth homeless programs around the country and told her that New Beginnings programs in Lewiston were among the best in the nation.
For many years, Collins said, she’s been interested in finding ways to help reduce and end homelessness in the U.S. but recently her focus has turned to youth homelessness. She said the issue of LGBT youth homelessness, which accounts for about 40 percent of all youth homelessness, stems in large part from discrimination.
Collins said in many cases LGBT children are kicked out of their homes once they tell their parents of their sexual orientation.
“I want to make sure, they too, have access to these services,” Collins said.
The programs are not meant to lifelong supports, Collins said, but are instead a stepping stones to self-sufficiency as Dixon’s story illustrates.
“This isn’t in any way meant to foster dependency,” Collins said. “It’s meant to help them through a very rough patch and keep them out of the clutches of people who would get them in prostitution, drugs or crime.”