Some reports put the increase at about 30% over just 2 years
A sharp rise in homeless young people in Maine is putting a strain on public schools and social services. Coupled with funding cuts these institutions recently faced, this is a recipe for disaster in the pine tree state.
Who Are These Homeless Youth?
Typically, they’re kids from preschool age to grade 12 (whether or not they’re attending school currently) without a place to stay. Officially, they are persons under age 21 who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
This would include kids who are couch surfing, staying in motels or emergency shelters, camping out, or living in vehicles. It can also include children who are awaiting foster care placement or those that have been abandoned in hospitals, including babies.
What Could Be Causing This Sudden Surge?
Well, at least part of it can be blamed on better reporting and stronger policies requiring schools to identify homeless and displaced students.
As seen elsewhere across the country, it is tricky to nail down solid numbers when it comes to quantifying homelessness. The more accurate a picture we can get, though, the better equipped we’ll be to offer services and institute policy changes to address the full scale of the problem.
But can a 30% increase over two years really be the result of more comprehensive reporting alone?
Of course, there are also larger societal problems at work. Housing remains unaffordable, especially in southern Maine. And many immigrant families or unaccompanied youth arrive in Maine to seek asylum.
Obviously, these new arrivals have very little access to resources. A lot of legwork needs to be done up front to get them set up. They need caseworkers, jobs, schools, shelter, legal advice, and everything else that can make their transition easier.
Maine, along with the rest of New England, has also been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. It’s widespread, across urban and rural areas alike, and tears families apart indiscriminately.
Addiction can lead to family homelessness, youth fleeing the home of addicted parents, or even kids left orphaned after their parents die from an overdose. All these things are unfortunately happening daily in Maine, and the problem is only getting worse.
LGBTQ+ Discrimination Also Plays a Factor
Another big factor for youth homelessness everywhere is discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. In a lot of homes, if a child comes out as gay, trans, or any other identity that their guardians don’t agree with, they may be kicked out from under their roof. Consequently, they become homeless. It’s a grim reality, but it’s happening every day.
The stakes are even higher on the streets for this type of homeless youth. Since violence rates against members of the LGBTQ+ community are higher across the board, LGBTQ+ homeless youth can face greater dangers while experiencing homelessness.
Of course, there are also the “garden variety” abusive homes where there is domestic violence or other types of abuse unrelated to gender identity or sexual orientation conflicts. Some kids and teenagers living in unhappy homes would rather take their chances by sleeping at friends’ houses, in shelters, or even on the streets than suffer another night of their family’s abuse.
There is a public perception that homeless youth are all just runaways. People believe these kids have willingly left stable, loving homes because they didn’t want to live under their parents’ roofs or rules anymore. In reality, only a small sliver of homeless youth are in that sort of situation. The vast majority have been made homeless by circumstances outside of their control.
A Far-Reaching Impact
The childhood and young adult years are formative times for anyone. Spending them in such a volatile way is sure to have far-reaching consequences. We’ve talked about this before, but it really can’t be overstated.
Dealing with homelessness as a child, teenager, or young adult makes it difficult to accomplish much more than what’s necessary for daily survival. Because of the inherent instability in these kid’s lives, many have their education interrupted or completely abandoned.
Homeless youth are also vulnerable to violence, mental health issues and human trafficking. Without access to the proper resources to continue their education, learn relevant job and life skills, and avoid victimization, homeless youth can easily turn into homeless adults – if they live that long.
Solutions aimed to address homelessness in general will also have a positive impact on youth homelessness. However, homeless kids also have their own unique set of struggles and challenges that need to be addressed separately.
Affordable housing will always help. But homeless youth also need access to job training programs, counseling, healthcare, education, and even educational advice. Many homeless youth want to go to college. But they have no one to ask about how to submit an application or secure financial aid.
The ideal would be all these services and more wrapped up into one organization that also offers youth a stable place to stay. It’s hard to take in lessons on FAFSA applications when you’re constantly worrying about your next meal or sleeping spot.
The New Beginnings’ Transitional Living Program has been doing a great job providing services like these for Maine’s homeless youth population since 1989. There, they provide a safe place for homeless youth to get back on their feet as they learn the skills necessary for an independent and self-sufficient life.
Organizations like these are essential for keeping kids and young adults from falling through the cracks in the system. They provide one last safety net that can drastically alter the trajectory of these kids’ lives.
As long as there are dysfunctional families, there will be a desperate need for places like New Beginnings. We need to support organizations like this that are already in place. And we should open more to provide a wider range of coverage for all our displaced youth.
If you want to know more about how to help homeless youth, check out this article.