On Tuesday night, all 24 beds at the youth homeless shelter in Portland were filled, marking the sixth night of full capacity in the last seven days.

The last time the shelter was full was February 2020, just before the pandemic reached Maine.

“We had an idea as the community opened back up from the pandemic that maybe demand would increase, but no, this wasn’t predicted,” said Kiersten Mulcahy, director of teen shelter services for Preble Street, which operates the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter for youth ages 12-20.

The trend goes beyond Portland. Homeless advocates in Lewiston and on the midcoast said demand for youth services has risen in the past two weeks.

There is always some seasonality to homelessness trends in Maine – as the colder months approach, and the prospect of staying outdoors is untenable, more people seek emergency shelter. The number of youths needing emergency shelter fluctuates regularly as well, but Preble Street staff said the current trend is without precedent since the facility opened in 2004. The teen shelter is one of only three in the entire state that is specifically for youths. The others are in Lewiston and Bangor.

Over the spring, summer and fall, the nightly average at the shelter has ranged from 10 residents to a high of 18 in October, although that’s likely to be eclipsed when the full data for November is released next week. The closest the shelter had come to being at full capacity this year, through October at least, was one night in August, when 22 beds were filled.

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Asked to explain what might be driving the recent increased need among youth, Preble Street staff pointed to the pandemic and the sustained level of stress on families.

“This should really be a call to community (action). We’re not doing this work in isolation,” said Hailey Virusso, director of teen housing services. “I think we need to remind folks who have privileges or who might have extra this time of year to think about whether they have the ability to support youth. It could mean providing housing options to someone who maybe doesn’t have a credit score, or employment to someone who doesn’t have a list of references. Those people are deeply necessary.”

One resident of the youth shelter, who provided only his first name, Challen, said his first experience of homelessness was in February 2020. He had no money and could no longer live with his father and stepmother, although he declined to elaborate on why. After spending some time at the shelter, he found another living situation but that proved unsustainable after six months or so, and again he had nowhere to go.

Challen, who is 20, described himself as a “dry sponge,” when he first arrived at the shelter.

“I didn’t know what to expect at all,” he said. “But I met some people who have become friends.”

He said he still sees a lot of stigma out there and said the pandemic has certainly made accessing services a challenge.

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“Some people are lucky to have options if they can’t stay with family, but a lot of other people don’t,” he said. “I don’t think people always realize that.”

Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings in Lewiston, which operates a 12-bed youth shelter, said Wednesday that there are 10 teens there currently – a number he hasn’t seen since before COVID-19.

“We have not reached capacity during my time here, but we do anticipate reaching it based on the rate of referrals we’re seeing,” he said.

Jamie Dorr, who runs the Midcoast Youth Center in Bath, which is not a shelter but provides services to at-risk teens, said there is no question that demand has increased in recent weeks. To date, the youth center has assisted 34 youths.

“We might serve 50 in a normal school year. If we continue to grow at this rate, it’ll surpass that by January,” she said. “The pandemic has exacerbated everything. Every social complex issue that we’d face on a normal day has just been magnified. You see it. People are on edge, substance use has increased in teens and families. What we’re seeing with the youth we’re working with, their issues are really complex; they need so much emotional support.”

Dorr’s work is primarily with children who are served by RSU1 in Bath or SAD 75, which serves Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell. She said people might not think these towns are affected by homelessness, but they are.

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“Over the past five years doing this work, we’ve known of kids who will go into the laundromat because it’s open 24 hours,” she said. “We’ve seen children as young as 12 leave home. So, that immediate safety net is really important.”

Back at Preble Street, staff said even though they have reached capacity, no minors are ever turned away. On the rare occasion someone shows up and all the beds are full, they will work with the City of Portland-run adult shelter, Oxford Street, to move an individual who is at least 18 years old.

Unlike Oxford Street and the city’s family shelter, which have the ability to accommodate overflow, the youth shelter at Preble Street has a hard cap of 24 beds.

OVER 2,000 YOUTHS UNHOUSED LAST YEAR

Quantifying the current number of unhoused youths in Maine isn’t easy.

There is a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act, that requires states to track all homeless youths for educational purposes and that funds various programs. Under that law, a student is considered homeless if he or she lacks “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That often can mean the student is sleeping at friends’ homes or couch surfing, staying in a hotel, doubled up with another family or living outdoors.

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The most recent data, which covers the 2019-20 school year, had 2,302 students in Maine considered homeless, or about 1.3 percent of all students. That ranks eighth lowest among all states and marks a decline from the previous year.

However, from 2014-15 to 2018-19, the number of homeless youths in Maine, under the McKinney-Vento Act, increased by 32 percent. Only a small fraction of these individuals would be considered unhoused.

Bicknell, who worked for many years at Preble Street before moving to New Beginnings in Lewiston, said the state would be better served by having more shelter options. He said it’s not uncommon for his facilities to get residents from an hour away or more.

At least one shelter, in Knox County, is in the works, and possibly one in Aroostook County, Bicknell said.

“Having a couple other options takes pressure off our shelter, for sure, and others as well,” he said.


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