BRUNSWICK — Becoming homeless last year was difficult, but Kelly Ledsworth said it was the best thing she’s ever done.

Ledsworth on April 18 noted the irony, admitting when most people think of homelessness, they think of the Preble Street shelter in Portland, of drug and alcohol abuse, or that something must be wrong with the person.

It is a stigma the former Brunswick resident, now a freshman studying art at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, is trying to end by spreading awareness. And it’s a social issue that Housing Resources for Youth – an initiative recently launched in the Midcoast – aims to tackle through its Host Home Program.

There are many circumstances that may drive a teenager to leave home, Housing Resources Chairwoman Jane Scease said last week. They include disagreements about rules and behavior;  gender issues; new parental partners, and a parent who is unable to take responsibility for the child due to their own drug or alcohol addiction.

For Ledsworth, it was a long-needed means of escape.

“When I was 15, my mother kicked me out of her house,” she said. “I had a boyfriend at the time, and I had nowhere to go, so I lived with him … until I was 18.”

“It was bad,” Ledsworth added. “It was domestic violence – physical, mental, emotional abuse.”

When she turned 18, the then-Brunswick High School senior sought help getting free. Ledsworth was ultimately placed in a 10-bedroom safe house in Portland last March.

“It was so amazing,” she said. “Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. … There were all these women there that had gone through what I’d gone through.”

“It was the first place in my life that had ever felt like home,” she added.

Thanks to a school-funded taxi service, Ledsworth was able to commute to Brunswick and graduate that spring. She is now thriving in Portland and maintains a cheerful, optimistic demeanor despite what she has endured.

Host homes

Providing safe and stable host homes is what Housing Resources for Youth is all about. The organization seeks to offer a housing option to youths who attend Brunswick, Morse and Mt. Ararat high schools.

“It is critical that we make sure that youth who are separated from their families live in a place where they are safe, have food, and the supports they need to be successful,” noted Jane Scease, a Topsham resident and School Administrative District 75 board member.

Her group’s host home model reflects a nationally recognized approach to supporting both the teens who have left their parents or guardians and the host families who take them in, she explained.

Housing Resources for Youth draws staff from a variety of organizations: the Merrymeeting Project; Tedford Housing; Brunswick and Topsham housing Authorities; People Plus; and school and church volunteers.

Morse High School has 12 unaccompanied homeless students, meaning they’re not with a parent or guardian, and another 15 who live in homeless families, according to School Counselor Leslie Trundy. Mt. Ararat High School has eight unaccompanied youth, and five in homeless families, according to Mary Booth, district health coordinator and homeless liaison for SAD 75.

Brunswick High School has 26 homeless students, 17 of whom are unaccompanied, Assistant Superintendent Greg Bartlett reported.

Tedford Housing is the fiscal agent for the organization, which is applying for nonprofit status. Funds raised from donors and grants will pay for a part-time program coordinator, who will market the Host Home Program to the three schools and their surrounding communities, and screen and train host families and youths.

“Appropriate background checks will be completed for the family and the youth,” Scease noted. “The student will be provided with profiles of potential matches and will choose one to meet with. If the family and youth decide to go forward with a match, the coordinator will work with them to develop an agreement about how they will live together.”

That pact will cover subjects such as meals, curfews, chores, visits by friends, and how long the youth will stay with the family. The coordinator will frequently check in with both parties.

Those interested in providing a host home, or donating to the program, can reach Scease at 242-8475 or [email protected]. More information is available at the Housing Resources for Youth Facebook page.

Scease hopes to have the program up and running this fall.

Informal host family arrangements, such as with a family friend, a relative, or teacher providing a bed or couch, do exist in the Midcoast, Scease noted. But stresses can occur during those stays, such as the teen having difficulty adjusting to the new environment, the legal responsibilities of the host, and to whom either party can turn if tensions arise.

“It is the goal of Housing Resources for Youth to alleviate such stress by matching the student with an appropriate home, then providing support to the family and students when issues arise,” Scease explained.

Such a program would have been a boon to Ledsworth.

“I definitely would have left my domestic violent relationship way sooner,” she said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Jane Scease, left, is a School Administrative District 75 board member who has helped launch a host home program for homeless area teenagers. Kelly Ledsworth experienced homelessness during her time at Brunswick High School.

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