Local school districts throughout the Lakes Region say they are working to address homelessness in their student populations, but some districts are hampered by a lack of shelters or resources in the area.

Although Maine did see a 16% decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2018-2019, the state still had 2,271 homeless students in 2018, many of whom were unsheltered at night, spending nights in hotels or motels or doubling up to share a living space.

A 2020 study by the National Center for Homeless Education found that the number of students nationally who were homeless at some point during the last three school years increased 15 percent from the 2015-2016 school to the 2017-2018 school year.

Schools in the region say they have between 10 and 20 homeless students each year, but also say that some homeless students may go unreported.

Educators said that among their students, they see a lot of couch surfing, meaning living temporarily with various friends with no fixed address, or doubling up with other families.

“We actually get a lot of elementary parents doubling up with another family because they don’t have housing,” said Jenny Dunn, the homeless liaison for SAD 61. “In high school, we see a lot of couch surfing. We have quite a few living in a camper with limited heat.” 

She estimates that Lake Region High School had 15 homeless students last year.

“At least twice a week, I am dealing with (homelessness,)” said Susan Prince, the homeless liaison for the Windham/Raymond district, which has 19 homeless students this year.

Bridgton Police Chief Richard Stillman said half of the students at Stevens Brook Elementary School come and go during the school year as their families move around to find permanent housing.

When a district becomes aware of a student who is homeless, help is gathered together on a case-by-case basis.

Every situation is unique in its own way,” said Bonny Eagle High School Principal Michael Johnson, who said the district has between 10 and 20 homeless students at any given time.

The district might communicate with the student’s family, ensure they receive free or reduced meals or help with transportation issues.

It’s brainstorming with all the resources that are out there that they may be eligible for and bringing it all together to coordinate those services,” said Val Fitzgerald, the Community Resources Officer in New Gloucester and a program coordinator for the Cumberland County Homeless Prevention Program. 

However, those services are often few and far between in rural areas.

Out in this area, there’s little to no resources for a lot of things. We just need more community resources,” SAD 61’s Dunn said. “There’s shelters here and there, but nothing in our district area. And shelters fill up quick. We had an instance a couple years ago where we had to bus the kids to Portland because they were living in a teen shelter. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said services become “sporadic” once leaving the greater Portland area: “It’s real difficult to be homeless in the rural areas.” 

In the Lakes Region area, it’s a little bit tougher for folks when they get into an unstable housing situation. I’ve had quite a few folks that have been in campers, couch surfing, having to double up with other families,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s no shelters up in that area. I had someone who was living in a shed.”

Joyce estimated that homelessness rates in the county have remained the same in recent years, and school administrators said they have not seen a decrease.

A 2020 study by the National Center for Homeless Education found that the number of homeless students living in hotels or motels increased by 24 percent from 2015-2018, while students in doubled-up situations increased by 13 percent.

There’s probably more than we actually know out there,” Joyce said. 

Stillman said “we have a lot of people in Bridgton that are struggling economically for whatever reason. Poverty is definitely an issue here. It’s really evident when you drive around.”

“I think it’s an issue in all high schools, regardless of the region or whether they’re urban or rural,” Johnson said.

“Rural homelessness is something that’s real that we all face,” said New Gloucester Interim Town Manager Paul First.

Casco Town Manager Courtney O’Donnell said that people often aren’t aware of homelessness in their towns, particularly couch surfing because “it’s not in our face, so to speak.”

She doesn’t feel that smaller towns, with their limited resources, will address the issue of homelessness themselves: “For a lot of small towns to actually take on the issue of homelessness is pretty unlikely. I guess until it is a more prevalent problem, something we’re forced to take on, I’m not sure you’ll see a lot of movement.” 

Comments are not available on this story.