Melissa Whitmore and Brandon Bessett stand outside of the motel in Kennebunk that they live in with Whitmore’s two children who attend Biddeford schools. The couple has been staying at the motel for two years while they search for an apartment they can afford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Every morning after waking up in their Kennebunk motel room, Melissa Whitmore loads her two kids into the car and drives them 20 minutes north to school in Biddeford.

Nothing about the situation is ideal – a family of four in a single hotel room, the stress of looking for an apartment in the midst of a housing crisis, the daily drive – but Whitmore knows it would be even worse if they hadn’t been able to rent the room after being evicted from an apartment.

“I can’t imagine living in a vehicle,” said Whitmore, who recently gave birth to her third child. Soon, five people will be living in the small, bare bones room.

Her older kids – a daughter in seventh grade and a son in kindergarten – are among more than 100 homeless students in Biddeford schools this year. Some students sleep in motels, shelters, minivans and tents. Some are homeless for a short stretch. Others, like Whitmore’s children, have been homeless for years. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a 400% increase in the number of homeless students in the Biddeford and Saco school districts and even more children are expected to become homeless this month as winter rentals end to make way for summer tourists.

Assistant Superintendent Chris Indorf doesn’t use the word crisis lightly, but when he looks at the homeless students in the two cities and the limited resources available to help them, he knows the schools are nearing a crisis level.


“I feel like we’re really at an inflection point of being able to serve these kids,” he said.

Under federal law, students are considered homeless if they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” and can remain enrolled in the school they have attended, even if they are temporarily living outside of the district. Statewide, 2,186 students are considered homeless. Those temporary living situations are putting a strain on school districts, which are grappling with transportation challenges, finding extra funding and adding staff to help homeless students and their families find the services they need.

In Biddeford, the 102 homeless students this school year account for 4.31% of students in the district. A decade ago, there were 40. In that time, the city became a more popular destination for people priced out of Portland or moving to Maine from out of state. The city has seen steep increases in rental prices, displacing many people who relied on lower costs.

“When I came to Biddeford 10 years ago, it was ‘Trashtown USA.’ The mills were empty and it did not look good for the city. Biddeford has had this remarkable downtown renaissance in the last decade,” Indorf said. “But a rising tide does not float all boats. Any time you have an economic transition like that, there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers. We still have a lot of students who are in desperate need who haven’t realized all the benefits of the city’s rebirth.”

Most of the families are homeless now because they have been evicted from buildings being sold or renovated and it’s difficult to find affordable apartments.



“It’s really, really hard for so many of our families to find housing because it’s just unattainable,” said Laurie Bruce, a resiliency coordinator who works with homeless students at Biddeford Middle School. “The lack of housing coupled with the price of housing is disastrous for our families.”

Across the river in Saco, there are now 94 homeless students, making up nearly 5% of students in the district. Five years ago, there were only 12. The majority of those students are from the 86 asylum-seeking families who are being housed at a hotel.

The recent dramatic increase in Biddeford and Saco puts the districts in line with other southern Maine schools. In Portland – where there is a concentration of homelessness services – there are 628 homeless students this year or 9.48% of all students in city schools. There are 198 (6.83%) in South Portland, 130 in Brunswick (5.38%) and 148 in Sanford (4.58%).


Whitmore, the mom in Kennebunk, was living in Biddeford in 2022 with her children, 13-year-old Cassiddee and 5-year-old Riley, when they were evicted from their apartment because she struggled to pay rent during a difficult time for her family. She stayed briefly with a relative, then moved into the Kennebunk motel room with her children and her partner, Brandon Bessett, more than two years ago.

“We didn’t want it to be that long,” said Whitmore, who worked two jobs before going on maternity leave. “It was supposed to be temporary.”


Bessett, who works full-time as a personal support specialist, said he has known the motel manager for many years and he gives them a discount.

The family has been looking for an apartment but has found few options available for less than $2,000 a month. Landlords have turned them down after running a credit check. They saved up enough for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent for when they do find a place but had to spend all of it to replace their car after a crash in February.

Melissa Whitmore and Brandon Bessett have been living in a motel room for more than two years, and worry that their family of five will continue to struggle to find an affordable apartment. They’re one of a growing number of homeless families with kids in Biddeford schools. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

They are now feeling extra pressure to find an apartment – preferably in Biddeford so the children can stay in their schools. The arrival of their daughter Lilliannia, born prematurely in April at 31 weeks and weighing only 3 pounds, has added to the pressure. Whitmore and Bessett worry the motel room will feel even more crowded when Lilliannia is finally able to come home.

“It’s hectic. All of us in one little room is overwhelming,” Bessett said. “It’s very, very difficult for any family to go through this. Stuff like this tears families apart.”

There is limited help available in York County for families who find themselves without a place to live, and many of them end up in hotels temporarily. There is just one 37-bed adult homeless shelter to serve all 29 towns in the county. And there’s only one family shelter, with a capacity for just 16 people.

Both shelters are run by York County Shelter Programs in Alfred. There has always been a high demand for beds at both facilities, but the family shelter now has a constant wait list. That was unheard of several years ago, said Megan Gean-Gendron, the organization’s executive director.


“Historically, people would call about the shelter anticipating the time that they would need shelter,” she said. “Now we are seeing more emergency calls.”

And families are staying there longer, about a year on average, Gean-Gendron said.

In the past year, the shelter has put 40 families in motels using temporary state funding, including a dozen families from the Biddeford-Saco area.

Gean-Gendron worries about what will happen when the funding that pays for the motels runs out.

“That pot of money has been the most critical for us,” she said. “We would not be able to safely shelter families as they await a room at the family shelter or new housing. It would be tragic, frankly.”



As the numbers increased dramatically in Biddeford and Saco, so too did the solutions the schools have created to support homeless families and make sure their children can be ready to come to school and learn, Indorf said.

“Our obligation used to be get them to school and feed them,” he said. “Now, schools have really become frontline social service agencies that are providing medical care, dental care, food five days a week plus backpacks on the weekend, and shelter.”

In Biddeford and Saco, the schools have added social workers, guidance counselors and resiliency coordinators to support homeless students, who are more likely to be dealing with substance abuse, mental illness or neglect outside of school.

Bruce, the resiliency coordinator, helps parents fill out housing applications, connect with case managers and locate other resources to help meet their basic needs.

The middle school now has a clothing closet and hygiene supplies. A shower stocked with shampoo and soap is available for any student who needs it. The staff can also wash students’ clothes.

“I don’t know how we can expect any child to sit in a classroom and do math when their basic needs are not met. It’s super important a child has a full belly, feels clean and feels good to sit in class with their peers,” Bruce said. “We want them to come in here and be the best version of themselves. We can’t expect them to be the best version of themselves if they are hungry, cold or were up all night.”


The nonprofit education foundations in Biddeford and Saco have been one of the most critical resources available to meet the needs of homeless students, Indorf said. Originally set up to raise money for field trips and other enrichment activities, the Biddeford Education Foundation now spends about 90% of the $25,000 or more it raises each year on homeless families. Saco’s education foundation was started recently and is now raising money.

Indorf said that money, along with $311 in state funding allocated to help each homeless student, has been used in a variety of ways to help Biddeford families find some stability. Sometimes that means paying a power bill, helping with fuel costs or buying Hannaford gift cards.

The foundation has also paid for emergency motel rooms for people who become homeless when the General Assistance office is closed and have nowhere to go. In one case, it paid for a U-Haul rental for a family that was living in the back of a moving truck during the winter.

“The choice was the U-Haul or the street,” Indorf said.

The schools now have backpack programs that send food home with students on weekends and during school vacations. Both communities also arranged for regular food distributions through Youth Full Maine, a Biddeford nonprofit that gives away boxes of food each month.



One of the biggest remaining challenges is transportation.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, schools are required to transport children to school from wherever they are sleeping at night. Right now, Biddeford has students staying in towns as far away as Kittery and Lewiston.

The districts, like many others in Maine, are struggling to hire enough bus drivers. Some students are now picked up by principals or other staff – for a time, Indorf was picking up kids from one family every morning – or have to miss some of their school day. Indorf said the school district has paid out $9,000 in reimbursements to families who can drive their kids to school from the shelter in Sanford. On rare occasions and with parental permission, the district has hired taxis to drive older students to school.

When a Biddeford family is living at the shelter in Sanford, the kids may have to leave very early to get to school on time, and then leave before the end of the day to take a bus back to the shelter. Gean-Gendron said they are trying to use motel rooms to keep some children closer to their schools, reducing the need for out-of-district transportation and keeping the families in their communities.

“The best thing for these kids is to stay in their support system and with the people they are familiar with,” she said.

Despite all of that work, it’s now getting to the point where the schools, municipal governments and nonprofits that work directly with the families are not going to be able to sustain and keep people off the streets unless the state provides more money, Indorf said.

Indorf and Gean-Gendron both worry about what the next month will bring as more families become homeless as they lose houses or motel rooms they’ve been renting in the off-season.

“As the winter rentals come to an end, I think we’re going to see a bigger spike than we’ve ever seen in demand for the family shelter,” Gean-Gendron said. “It’s very scary.”

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