Emily Bruce (Contributed photo)

BRUNSWICK — People often are surprised when Emily Bruce tells them she works with homeless children and teens in Brunswick and surrounding areas. As a relatively affluent coastal community, she said people from other areas don’t expect there to be a large number of homeless children (or adults for that matter) in town. But with homeless shelters at capacity and at least 90 homeless students in the Brunswick school district alone, the reality she sees is starker and more concerning than others might think. And the problem is only growing. 

Bruce recently was hired as the coordinator for Housing Resources for Youth, a new host home program getting off the ground serving homeless high school students in Brunswick, Bath and Topsham. Homeless students will be matched with qualified families who are willing to house them for an agreed-upon period of time. Each family and student will develop an agreement that covers things like curfew, meals, friend visits and chores. It is, according to Bruce, “an important bridge between homelessness and permanent housing.” 

The Times Record reported in May that between three area school 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. 

Bruce thinks the actual numbers are likely even higher than what has been reported, as many young people will not want to come forward to talk about their living situations. She does not know why these numbers have spiked in recent years, but said there are any number of reasons why a child can become homeless, whether it’s related to trauma, domestic violence, substance abuse, gender identity, abuse or something else. 

It’s important when working with homeless and at-risk populations to “realize the larger systems at play,” she said. “People often equate poverty with personal choice, especially with youth, and that’s just not accurate.” 

Her main responsibility, according to a press release from Housing Resources for Youth, will be establishing relationships with local youth service providers (including the schools) to identify and match homeless youth with host homes. 

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Part of her job will also be to try to make connections with the schools and get to know students so they can come to her when they are in trouble.

“I’m not looking to be someone who pops up twice per year and says ‘come see me if you’re homeless,’” she said, “I want to be a resource they can come see before things get out of control.”

There is no one reason for homelessness, and therefore no one solution, but organization officials feel the host homes program is a “relatively low-cost first step in addressing the problem.” The website is almost ready to go live, they have developed a “grant calendar” to know when to apply for funding and Bruce said she feels ready for the start of the year to “hit the ground running.”

Since the program is just getting off the started, director Jane Scease said they intend to start small, matching a few students per school with host families. 

They have not designated any host homes yet, but there are families who are interested, Bruce said, and as the start of the school year looms closer, they will start doing background checks and trying to compile a list of families they can have on retainer.

“Because it is a pilot program for us, it’s going to take some time to finesse,” she said.

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Bridging the gap

For some students in the district, Housing Resources for Youth will be able to bridge the gap left by the Merrymeeting Project, which closed at the end of June after a loss of funding. 

For years, the three local districts partnered with Tedford Housing in the Merrymeeting Homeless Youth Regional Collaborative, or simply, the Merrymeeting Project, which was funded by the Department of Education and Tedford. But in January, the districts lost funding for the Merrymeeting Project.

Coordinator Donna Verhoeven worked primarily with unaccompanied homeless youth, helping them 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. 

“If you don’t have a place to live or a stable place to live, education doesn’t happen,” she said at the time.  

“Students are taken care of from about 7:30 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon,” said Mary Booth, MSAD 75 school health coordinator. 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 this spring. 

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Now, Verhoeven and former Tedford Housing board members are seeking a way to get the project up and running again. 

Until then, Housing Resources for Youth and the host homes program may be able to help a few of the kids Verhoeven worked with, at least to give them a place to stay and family to look after them.

For more information on Housing Resources for Youth, to volunteer or donate, contact Jane Scease at [email protected], or Emily Bruce at [email protected]

[email protected]

 

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