It’s the kind of story you’d hope would make everyone stop, put everything else aside, and work tirelessly until something is done.

The number of Maine kids living alone on the streets is on the rise. As Vanessa Paolella of the Sun Journal reported March 5, they struggle to get by day to day, and have little hope for a better future.

Dylan Collins, right, and Alex Southworth wheel a loaded shopping cart down Lisbon Street on Feb. 23 to the Lewiston Public Library. The library is welcoming to homeless people and is a popular spot for people to stay warm as they move from spot to spot in the city during cold weather. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But youth homelessness is a symptom of some of Maine’s most difficult challenges – poverty, substance abuse, the lack of affordable housing – and while people are working every day to overcome them, solutions to those big problems seem far away.

So let’s make them smaller.

Just as military veterans can access programs tailored to their specific needs, so too should homeless young people, particularly those estranged from their families.

As Paolella reports, most homeless kids live with their families, often in hotels, shelters, or with friends or relatives.


But about 17% of them are on their own, having left their parents or foster care, experts say.

Those teenagers often have little choice but to leave. Their families are steeped in poverty, and many struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. They are victims of the housing crisis and the lack of mental health care, both of which contribute to family instability.

It’s particularly bad for teens whose gender or sexual identity doesn’t fit family expectations; they are less likely to have other forms of community support, and far more likely to end up homeless.

Things aren’t likely to get better once they leave. Most homeless young people report being assaulted on the street, and many are exploited in exchange for money, food or shelter. They are more likely to turn to alcohol and drugs to cope. They are far less likely to graduate from high school.

Those kids never get a chance to get going. It is such a waste, and one that echoes over time – today’s homeless kids often become tomorrow’s unstable parents, perpetuating the cycle.

That’s the bad part.


The good part is that the number of homeless youth in Maine – about 2,000 total – is small enough to wrap our hands around. The number of unaccompanied homeless young people is even smaller.

By focusing on that population, Maine can make a real difference for these kids and their communities.

People and institutions are already working to help homeless youth, but all agree it’s not enough.

Maine needs more shelter options for teens. Many homeless teens, because of past trauma, have trouble adhering to rules and structure; that must be taken into account so they aren’t driven away from help.

There is also not enough short-term housing to help teens transition from homelessness, nor is there enough help available in areas they need it most: transportation, counseling, education and job training.

Additional help should be steered toward kids in foster care, as well. More than half of Maine’s unaccompanied homeless young people were in the foster system, which regularly leaves kids without familial support or a place to live once they turn 18.


Lawmakers should seriously consider a bill this session that would extend MaineCare coverage to foster kids up to age 27, ensuring they have health insurance. Another bill would waive higher education tuition for children in foster care.

Both would help Maine teens age out of foster care with more support, and help them avoid homelessness in the first place.

The bills are also a good opportunity for legislators to discuss the problem and see what other gaps may exist.

Not too long ago, people decided that every veteran should have a home. It became an intense focus for housing advocates, and it worked, cutting veteran homelessness in half over six years.

We should do the same for homeless young people, so they have a chance at the kind of future we all want.

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