December 11, 2012

New Portland teen shelter 'so much better'

Homelessness among those between the ages of 12 and 20 has increased, and the old shelter was turning away teenagers every night.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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Crystal Swain, a homeless teen who has spent time at the Preble Street teen shelter, describes the width of the older shelter mattress compared to the new one she is sitting on.

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The new shelter is closer to Congress Street and the city's downtown. In fact, when Preble Street first proposed the new shelter last year, the Portland Downtown District opposed it.

The district, which represents the business community, is still "deeply concerned" about the growing concentration of social services within a two-block radius of Congress Street. However, the group is optimistic Preble Street will be responsive when it comes to concerns of business, said Doug Fuss, president of the PDD's Board of Directors.

"We feel confident that Mark (Swann) understands the need to be responsible neighbors and to create a safe, clean environment now that he's in the Downtown District," Fuss said. "We feel confident they will work with us on these things."

Bicknell said the center will have twice the staff as the Lighthouse Shelter, which has three staffers during the evening and two overnight.

Swann said businesses should be more concerned about youth who have no shelter and are forced to sleep on the street, under bridges, or engage in illegal activity in exchange for shelter. "I don't think having kids without anyplace to sleep is good for anybody," he said.

Swain, the 19-year-old, said teens seeking shelter have to battle not only homelessness and hunger, but also the stigma that they're a bunch of layabouts, who don't like their parents and don't want to do anything all day besides do drugs and drink alcohol.

"It's completely untrue," Swain said. "Every single one of the kids I have ever met there is there because they could not be in the place they came from – whether it's an emotional reason, physical – you name it."

Swain said she hopes she will never have to use the new center after it opens in January. She has lived off-and-on at Lighthouse over the past two years and said she left home because she didn't feel safe.

Swain, who recently earned her GED through Portland Adult Education's Street Academy, is trying to get into college to earn a degree in marine biology and fulfill her dream of having an independent and stable life.

"Hopefully, after (college) I can just be a good citizen in the community and everything else," she said. 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings


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