Donna Verhoeven is the outreach coordinator and case manager for the Merrymeeting Project, a collaborative effort between Brunswick, MSAD75, RSU1 and Tedford Housing to assist homeless students. The group lost it’s funding from the Department of Education this year, and now Verhoeven is working with her students to strengthen their plans for next year when she will no longer be able to help them. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — In 2007, Greg Bartlett, Brunswick’s assistant school superintendent, worked with six homeless students in Brunswick. By January 2019, that number had skyrocketed to 76. Within another four months, it swelled to nearly 100.

In neighboring Maine School Administrative District 75, which serves the Topsham area and the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, the problem is also on the rise. Katie Joseph, assistant superintendent in RSU 1, said most of the district’s 30 to 40 homeless students are from Bath, and numbers of chronically absent or truant students are increasing.

But the schools are now grappling with how to combat these increases amid the unexpected loss of funding for a program meant to support homeless students in those districts.

“We’re all weathering the storm,” said Bartlett.

Why the spike?

Before the 2008 recession, the majority of MSAD 75 homeless students were in high school, according to Mary Booth, school health coordinator. After that there was a shift, she said, and suddenly 50% were in elementary school. On average, the district now has roughly 50 homeless students per year. It may not seem like many compared with larger communities, she said, but “it’s a lot for the people dealing with it.”

Between the three districts, the number of students supported under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — a 1987 federal law that provided federal funding for homeless shelters and programs to combat homelessness — increased by 17.5% between 2016 and 2018.

The reason for the jump, particularly Brunswick’s dramatic increase, is unclear.

“We’re trying to figure it out,” said Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski. “If you look at the other districts, our numbers are nearly twice theirs … this year has been an anomaly.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that there is no one reason for homelessness. There is a lack of affordable housing in the area, and more people are heading to Brunswick because it’s a center for social services. Perzanoksi said they will begin a more in-depth look at the recent increase over the summer, but that still may not reveal a well-defined answer.

For years, the districts have partnered with Tedford Housing in the Merrymeeting Homeless Youth Regional Collaborative, or simply, the Merrymeeting Project, which is funded by the Department of Education and Tedford. But in January, the districts lost funding for the Merrymeeting Project, and Bartlett, Booth and Joseph, the three McKinney-Vento liaisons, are scrambling to figure out how they can continue to meet a need that is only increasing.

Donna Verhoeven, the Merrymeeting Project case manager works with the districts to respond to the “high mobility, trauma and poverty associated with homeless students and the unique educational barriers and challenges that students with fixed, regular and adequate housing may not face,” according to the district’s grant application.

“Students are taken care of from about 7:30 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon,” Booth said. During the school day they are warm and dry, they have a meal, there are supports on site to help with mental health or physical health concerns, but “when they leave us at the end of the day, until 7:30 the next morning, the students are in this risky environment and are managing on their own. The Merrymeeting Project bridged that gap,” she said.

Verhoeven works primarily with unaccompanied homeless youth and meets with them to fill out applications for MaineCare or other assistance, to discuss safety, basic needs, housing, legal issues and other needs that the school districts aren’t able to address.

“I am those feet on the ground,” she said. She works with students outside of the school day and acts as a conduit between the schools and the community.

Students can be homeless on their own or with their families for many reasons, such as job loss, family conflict, illness, substance abuse or even a fire, and according to Giff Jamison, director of operations at Tedford, the gap between what people earn and the price of apartments is continuing to widen. 

According to recent data from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, to afford a two-bedroom apartment, the average Maine renter would have to make $18.73 per hour. However, the average Maine wage is $11.44 per hour.

A lack of affordable housing is exacerbating the problem. In Maine there are only 52 available low-income rental apartments per 100 extremely low-income rental households, meaning these students and their families may be sleeping in a car, living in a campground, couch surfing or doubling up with other families.

These students have a higher risk of mental health problems, trafficking, suicide and teen pregnancy, and are 4.5 times more likely to be homeless as adults, according to Verhoeven.

“If you don’t have a place to live or a stable place to live, education doesn’t happen,” she said. “A lot of what I do doesn’t feel like education. It feels like just bandaging these kids so they can get through the day.”

“It’s not getting better for youth, (and) I have seen the result of one positive person to change the trajectory and introduce promise,” she said. Without the project, “there will be a gap there.”

Loss of funding

The grant, a sort of subgrant under the McKinney-Vento Act, was for $59,000, $32,000 of which was paid for by Tedford Housing and another $6,000 from the United Way of Midcoast Maine, but they cannot keep the project afloat on their own, and neither can the school districts said Craig Phillips, executive director of Tedford Housing.

This year, the purpose of the grant changed, and it was doled out based on the school’s overall needs assessment, Verhoeven said. Of the schools that applied, only one received any funding, so the Department of Education put out another request for proposals and gave schools the opportunity to fix their applications. This time, the Merrymeeting Project steering committee members decided not to reapply and instead pursued but failed to obtain another grant. Since more schools still did not qualify through the second application process, the department decided to distribute the funds among all the districts that submitted a second proposal.

Verhoeven said they approached the school about funding it “partly on their dime,” but the conversations didn’t go anywhere.

Booth said she believes they will reapply for the grant funds, but that it hasn’t been decided yet.

In the meantime, Verhoeven is meeting with her students to let them know that the program will not continue next year. She will work with them for the remainder of the school year to strengthen the plans they have already made and hopefully help them find another trusted adult. She will make herself available to kids in the summer who need some quick help, but beyond that, says her hands are tied.

“We will do the best we can,” Booth said, “a lot of the time it’s out of the scope of when we are here. It’s too soon to know what the impact will be.”

Other options

While the loss of the Merrymeeting Project is a blow to the districts, area homeless students will not be entirely without support.

The Emergency Action Network, which has branches in both Brunswick and in Topsham, is a local effort to connect student needs (like a backpack, a winter jacket or a pair of basketball sneakers) to a network of nearly 1,000 local allies who help fill these needs. In the event that the community members are not able to find or supply the items needed, or if there is an emergency, TEAN has funding it can use to step in.

“People come to us when they can’t find help anywhere else,” said Erin Mangalam, one of TEAN’s organizers.

Mt. Ararat Principal Donna Brunette told The Times Record in December that in Topsham, “Requests will focus on supporting students and breaking down barriers for students who have whatever challenging circumstance.”

Another program, Housing Resources for Youth, recently launched a host home program to match local high school students with safe, supportive households.

Each family and student will develop an agreement that covers things like curfew, meals, friend visits and chores, and is an important starting point, according to chair Jane Cease in a description of the program.

The program will provide support to the family and students if and when any issues arrive.

In Topsham, Joseph said they are exploring what if anything they could do to keep some of Verhoeven’s services or if there are any other grants available, but that there are no immediate plans.

In Brunswick, assisting the homeless students, largely in transportation, was identified as one of the drivers for the district’s 2020 spending plan increase.

Families are often forced to move into different districts, whether to find housing, to live with friends or family or to find work. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, if a homeless student has to move to another district, the family can choose whether they want the children to switch schools or stay in the “home” district.

“I’ve never met anyone who wanted to change schools,” Bartlett said, so it then becomes the school’s responsibility to provide transportation to the home district, in this case, Brunswick. It might be a bus service or even a cab. Bartlett calls the liaison for the other school district and if he can’t find transportation, sometimes the other district can and they will split the cost.

“We are all experiencing the same difficulties,” he said. This year they had $10,000 for transportation, but it’s gone now. “We will have to find that money in the budget somewhere else,” he said. “In the fall we’ll start over again and take it from there,” but until then they are waiting to see what happens.  

“The economy is doing great for some people but the other segment of the population is finding it exceedingly difficult to find housing,” he said. “It should be a concern for everybody.”

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