Roving team assisting Portland's young homeless

PORTLAND – In response to a surge in the number of young homeless people in the city, the Preble Street Resource Center has an outreach team roaming streets and parks, connecting homeless youths to social services.

The four-member team visits popular hangouts, such as Tommy’s Park and the camp sites in the woods along West Commercial Street. They hand out necessities such as water, soap, baby wipes, sunscreen, a bag lunch. They also provide other assistance, such as helping replace lost documents or helping people sign up for Social Security benefits.

Many homeless young people are addicted to opiates, such as OxyContin and Suboxone, a drug designed to treat opiate addiction that is prone to abuse. The outreach team tries to build trust with addicts so that at some point they might ask for help getting into a treatment center, said Peggy Lynch, the team leader.

Most people who the young homeless encounter during the day ignore them, look down on them or want to see them arrested and taken away, Lynch said. But many of the homeless respond well when engaged in conversation and shown some kindness, she said.

"It helps to show that the community cares about you," she said.

The six-month program, which began in May and will continue until the beginning of fall, is funded primarily by a $46,000 grant from the United Way of Greater Portland, along with other grants and existing funding, said Jon Bradley, an associate director of the Preble Street Resource Center.

The program is an offshoot of another program, the "HOME Team," a public-private initiative started two years ago and run by the Milestone Foundation. That program is focused on hardcore homeless people who are heavy drinkers, and is limited to the Congress Street corridor and downtown. The Milestone Foundation operates an emergency shelter and detoxification program on India Street.

The new outreach program is different in two ways: It focuses primarily on young people, and its patrol area is wider. It reaches beyond downtown to popular hangouts, such as the East End trails and the woods behind the Cumberland County Jail.

Lynch said the outreach team is seeing two different groups of street youths — those who grew up in Portland and surrounding communities and who have difficulty getting or holding jobs and housing — and those who travel from city to city, a group known as the "travelers."

Bradley said social service workers first noticed a sharp increase in homeless young people last summer. He said there are no statistics available to measure the increase, but that the overall homeless population in Portland is higher now than at any time during the recession.

Bradley said the city’s homeless shelters are at capacity most nights, and overflow rooms are also at capacity. He said people at night are often waiting in chairs for beds to open up. About 400 people are now in city shelters at night, he said.

"We are really seeing record numbers and are struggling with how to accommodate them," he said.

When people lose their jobs, he said, some time passes before they use up all their other resources and end up on the street. That’s probably why the numbers of homeless are greater now than at the peak of the recession, he said.

The crowded conditions in city shelters have caused many homeless youths to camp out at the edge of the city, Lynch said. That physical distance is a barrier to accessing social services, she said.

Tommy’s Park and Monument Square have become popular downtown hangouts for street youths. By helping the homeless, the outreach workers are also helping downtown businesses and the police, said Joseph Tucci, who runs a hotdog stand in Monument Square.

"I tell you, without them, we would have a lot more problems," he said of the outreach workers. "And the police would have it a lot harder."

About 20 young street people were hanging out at Tommy’s Park on Tuesday afternoon. Lynch struck up a conversation with Joey Roest, 21, from Dixmont, who is now staying at a campsite near Morrill’s Corner. Roest told Lynch he needed help obtaining a bicycle so he can get around the city.

Roest said he had been renting a room in an apartment, but ended up on the street a month ago after getting into an argument with his roommate, who held the lease. He’s now paying someone $5 a night to rent the tent.

Other youths in the park declined to give their names, saying they were ashamed. They said that living on the street is stressful, sometimes dangerous and not something they do by choice.

Lynch also spoke with Benjamin Parker, 19, about his desire to enroll in classes at Southern Maine Community College. Parker said he had a friend in Lewiston who could help him figure out how to enroll, but he didn’t have a ride to Lewiston.

Lynch said there is an adult education expert at the Preble Street Resource Center who could help him.

Parker was carrying all his possessions in a small backpack slung over his shoulder. He called it his "life bag." He said it’s hard to find a job without a fixed address, telephone or work history. He’s staying now at one of the city’s shelters.

"I don’t want to live like this the rest of my life," he said. "It’s really hard."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at