BRUNSWICK — As the number of homeless students in the Brunswick area grows, community members concerned about limited resources are finding innovative ways to help.

Two Brunswick school board members launched a network to gather everything from sneakers to gift cards for students and families experiencing homelessness. And in Topsham, a school board member is leading the charge to set up a network of host homes for homeless teens.

Volunteers with the Emergency Action Network in Brunswick collected these items for homeless students in March 2018. It’s one of multiple efforts springing up in the community with the fastest growth of student homelessness in Maine. Photo courtesy of Teresa Gillis

Teresa Gillis and Sarah Singer of Brunswick nearly three years ago began The Emergency Action Network, a group that receives requests from school officials for items homeless students need and finds community members willing to find them.

Gillis, whose work with TEAN is separate from her role as a school board member, said she was moved to do something after hearing about the “mind-boggling” rise in homeless students. There are 92 homeless students in Brunswick schools this year, up from 14 in 2014-15. Brunswick saw the most dramatic increase in student homelessness among all Maine school districts between 2014 and 2017.

“Once you’re aware of something, you can’t not help,” she said. “We wanted to harness community energy and resources and connect it with people who need help.”

The network is now a nonprofit with a six-member board, and Gillis hopes the model can be replicated in other communities.

A separate group is nearly ready to launch a host home program for the Brunswick, Bath and Topsham area that will provide safe housing and allow students to remain in their communities while they’re homeless. Host families would offer a spare bedroom on a temporary basis to a local student experiencing homelessness.

Five years ago, Jane Scease had no idea there were so many homeless youth in Bath, Topsham, Brunswick and surrounding towns.

“I was horrified to find out there are no resources for children who are unaccompanied,” said Scease, who serves on the SAD 75 school board.

The host home model is a nationally recognized approach that is beginning to gain traction in Maine, though it is still uncommon. Scease said these types of arrangements are already happening informally in many places, but Housing Resources for Youth is looking to formalize the process so homeless teens can stay in their communities.

Housing Resources for Youth is incorporating as a nonprofit, hiring a coordinator and should be ready to begin matching teens and host homes within months.

“It is critical we make sure youth who are separated from their families live where they are safe and have the support they need to be successful,” Scease said.