NORTH BERWICK — It was a Friday afternoon in November 2017 when a 16-year-old girl showed up in Susan Austin’s office. The teenager had no place to sleep that night and Austin had nowhere to send her.

The situation wasn’t new for Austin, the assistant superintendent of School Administrative District 60 in North Berwick and the person designated to work with homeless students. But it was no less frustrating.

The school can help students get free meals and school supplies, clothing from a local thrift store and health insurance through MaineCare.

The one thing Austin can’t provide is a safe place for them to sleep.

“We were all so frustrated we didn’t have a place for these kids,” Austin said. “We got fired up and said let’s do something.”

Less than two years after that encounter, a project to provide a safe home for teenagers to live in when they become homeless is nearing completion. It’s an innovative example of community-based responses around the state to the increasing number of homeless students. When the Ryan Home Project opens, it will be the first of its kind of Maine and one of the only programs like it in the country.

Susan Austin, the assistant superintendent for SAD 60, stands in front of the Ryan Home homeless students. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Monday after that student walked into her office, Austin was driving past the Ryan home, a stately 1850s-era yellow house near the town’s elementary school. Wouldn’t that be a great home for students who don’t have their own, she thought.

Austin reached out to the six siblings from the Ryan family who were selling the home and told them about her idea. They pulled the house off the market to give her time to come up with the money to buy it.  After Austin began pitching the idea, it quickly caught on among school officials, community members and others interested in addressing homelessness in western York County. They formed a nonprofit to raise money and run the Ryan Home Project.

Between January and May 2018, the group raised $150,000 and signed a mortgage for the Ryan home. Austin estimates it will cost $90,000 annually to run the program, including hiring house parents to care for the students staying there. The group is still fundraising and applying for grants to generate the money needed for the program.

The house will be open to six students 14 and older from the district who will be supervised by house parents hired by the nonprofit. Of the 47 students counted as homeless this year in SAD 60, only 14 are younger than sixth grade. The goal, Austin said, is to support the students as they navigate school and counseling, reunite with their families when appropriate, and develop a transition plan to the next phase of their lives.

The house is nearly ready for students to move in. On the second floor, colorful quilts cover the two double beds in each room. Toiletry kits sit on the bedside tables.

While the nonprofit works on raising money, Austin has organized a network of host families willing to take in homeless students. The host home model – where families temporarily take a child into their home, but not through the foster care system – is gaining traction nationwide, but is still relatively uncommon in Maine.

Betsy Clark, a retired special education case manager from Lebanon, recently hosted a 15-year-old girl in her home for several weeks. The girl’s family had been living in a tent and her mother wanted her to live in a safer place while they found other housing. Clark said she feels it’s critical teenagers have a safe place to stay and she supports both the host home model and the Ryan Home Project.

“It’s going to be very helpful to the community,” she said.

Beyond supporting local students, one of the goals of the Ryan Home Project is to develop a model for serving homeless youth that can be replicated in any town, Austin said.

“There’s no reason we can’t do this stuff in our communities,” she said. “Money will always be an issue, but keeping our kids safe and in our community is important.”


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