Portland Street Academy puts homeless youth on career path

Even though they are living on the streets, homeless students around town can still pursue their education goals through a remarkable program that gives them support, guidance and direction.

The Portland Street Academy, part of Portland Adult Education, has been helping homeless kids graduate high school and look for jobs for 20 years.

Joline Friedman and Joel Beaule, both teachers at the academy for most of its existence, have been a dynamic duo, showing the embattled teens the benefits of an education and a positive career path.

"Our goal is to help homeless youth reconnect with education," Friedman said. "For some of them, it means going back to a traditional school, for others it means getting a G.E.D."

They use a number of different means to the same end, giving homeless teens a fighting chance in the competitive marketplace.

"We have an employee training program called Learn to Earn," Beaule said. "We find youth interested in working in the community, and cover such things as filling out an application, interviewing, how to dress for the interview, time management – things we’ve all learned at some point in our lifetime."

The academy works with youth for a specified amount of time, and then helps turn the focus to gaining employment.

"Once we feel they are ready for a job, we contact businesses in the community. We provide the stipend so there’s no cost for the business, up to two months," he said. "The goal – the beauty of it – is that businesses take over paying the employees."

The academy has placed youth in various businesses in Portland, such as the Salvation Army, Artist & Craftsman Supply, and Portland Pottery.

"Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t," Beaule said. "Either way, the child gets two months of good experience."

While they were speaking of the academy and its successes, a youth who worked at Aramark (the dining services at the University of Southern Maine) called to tell Friedman she just got a job at a coffee shop.

The Street Academy works with 225 to 250 youth during the academic year, and has done so consistently for many years. A large percentage of them are trying to move forward and connect with education and employment.

"We have a fair amount who enroll at SMCC after working with us," Friedman said of the typically unaccompanied youth who come to the teen center. "These kids are homeless. They might be at a shelter, couch-surfing, or ‘doubled-up,’" which is staying at someone’s apartment, sleeping on the floor.

The Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter is filled (with a capacity of 24 youth), so options can be limited.

Students at the academy face the typical challenges of youngsters in school, but because they are homeless, a lot of them don’t have the stability of a parent to wake them up and get them off to school, and it can be tough to keep them engaged at times.

"They may have spent the night on the street, walking around," Friedman said.

"Oftentimes, the youth we see have gone from one placement to another, from town to town and school to school," said Beaule. "It’s understandable that these youth have a difficult time with trust. Developing that rapport takes time. Above and beyond that, is the very nature of being homeless – not knowing if they can stay at the shelter that night. To focus on schooling or finding a job is difficult. They lack that stability."

Some of the positives of the program are they’ve learned to adapt to survive, they’re resourceful, and they’re good at knowing how to get their needs met.

The graduation ceremony (students graduate with Portland Adult Ed) is the highlight of the year for the two teachers.

"It gets other kids excited when they see their peers graduate, and they say ‘maybe I can do this, too,’" Friedman said. "What’s nice also is, because we’ve been here so long, we see youth we worked with in the past, youth now in their 30s, at a point in their life where they are able to sit down and do some work. It’s nice to see them in a different space and a better place."

Chance Baker, 19, graduated this past June. He’s going through the Learn to Earn program, working in the Teen Center kitchen where he washed dishes, and prepares and serves the food. He is also working at Nickelodeon, at the box office and concessions.

Originally from Nebraska, Baker spent most of life in Iowa. He has been staying at the shelter in Portland for about a year now.

"A buddy of mine (in Iowa) is originally from Maine," Baker said. "He came back here to live with his family two years ago."

He asked Baker to join him for a summer vacation, and Baker fell in love with the woods and ocean here.

"When I went home, I had some troubles but finished junior year," he said. "When I came back to Maine (the next summer), my mom told me she wouldn’t be able to have me live there anymore. I stayed with my friend, Josh, but then became homeless. I met up with case managers, and Joline and Joel."

es and learning the independence needed to be on own.

Justin Busque, 22, graduated from Scarborough High School in 2009 and has been working at the Salvation Army for the last couple of years. He had been attending the Ocean Avenue School (through Spurwink) when he got into trouble while defending his brother.

"I’ve spent most of life in group homes," Busque said. "The state offers a V9 so you can continue with higher education, but I lost that." He connected with the Teen Center to get back on his feet, and is now living in an apartment with three other roommates.

He says he’s considering going to college so he can teach English, history or culinary arts "I’ve never been to a proper school since I was eight or nine years old," he said.

The Street Academy experience that Busque, Baker and hundreds of other homeless youth have enjoyed feels like a proper fit, indeed.