BRUNSWICK — A host program for the area’s increasing population of homeless youth is a step closer to reality.

A community task force hired a consultant last month to design a model that pairs homeless students in the Brunswick, School Administrative District 75 and Regional School Unit 1 schools with area families. The program would also include students from Arrowsic, Bath, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell, Phippsburg, Topsham, West Bath and Woolwich.

“My goal is to get (the task force) by January a kind of business plan of how they’re going to operate this,” Anne Gass said in a phone interview Monday. “They’ll have the program in a box.”

The task force formed last year to address the rising rate of student homelessness. In SAD 75 alone, the population of homeless students has increased from 12 in 2003 to an average of 50 a year since 2008, according to data compiled by the district health coordinator.

Last fall, the task force hosted two, well-attended panels in the Topsham Library that created awareness of the growing issue.

At the second, Oct. 20 panel, Patricia Julianelle, an attorney with the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, explained to an audience of about 70 people why the “host home” model might be right for the Brunswick area.

The model pairs students with members of the community in individualized, informal arrangements, Julianelle said; participants decide the level, the living arrangements, and the financial commitment.

Gass, who was hired in July through grant funding and donations, has over 24 years of experience working with nonprofits and local and state governments. In Maine, she said her work has concentrated on homelessness and refugee resettlement.

She credited the community for doing a terrific job “teeing up” the project she was hired to undertake.

The host home model is a good match for the Brunswick area, she said, which has “demonstrated strength … in keeping high school-age kids in stable supportive environments until they finish high school.”

“They just need a safe place to be until they finish,” she said.

She added the National Alliance to End Homelessness is promoting the model; it’s already been implemented in five or six states across the nation, and Gass said her work will focus on customizing the program to suit the local area.

It is a cost-effective alternative to constructing a shelter, she said.

The program will complement the number of social service resources that already exist in the Brunswick area – including a Tedford Housing employee dedicated to working with homeless students – but acknowledge that the Mid-Coast region’s rural nature is still a challenge to the homeless.

The informal, community-led design is “emphatically not a foster care model that does carry a lot of rules and regulation,” Gass added, as affirmed last year when the state Legislature passed a law “that specifically recognizes and approves of this as a model and distinguishes it from foster care.”

Though the merits of the informal component have been praised, formal supports and requirements will still exist.

Participants will likely need to undergo a background check at the very minimum, and Gass said she will look into what kinds of funding and oversight the community should have to support the matches.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or [email protected]. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

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