Survey hopes to quantify Maine's homeless youth

PORTLAND – Social service provider Preble Street is conducting a first-ever count of homeless and runaway youth in Maine.

The count, which began May 18 and will last a week, was funded by a $35,000 grant from the Butler Family Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that focuses on inequalities of homelessness and the criminal justice system.

Jon Bradley, Preble Street associate director, said the survey was developed to help find and understand the needs of youth who are homeless or in an unstable housing situation. He said typical surveys on homelessness don’t always look at couch surfing, those staying with family or friends, and "other common experiences with youth with difficulty at home."

"We’re hoping to really be getting a better hand on what happens in more rural counties, where there aren’t local services now," Bradley said.

The goal of the count is to find youth 20 years old or younger who are not staying with their parents or guardians, and are determined to be at risk or in unstable living environments. To do this, Preble Street and partners are reaching out to schools, law enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family and Children’s Services, and other community resources.

"One of the incentives (for the survey) was one of the four homeless shelters (in the state) last year closed and it wasn’t clear there was a full understanding by the Legislature … of the nature of the problem in Maine," Bradley said. "Part of that was we didn’t have good data."

Preble Street is putting up county-specific fliers to get the word out, giving students informational cards to give to their peers in need, and providing $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to participants.

Bradley said the organization has been working on the 30-question survey for roughly six months. It takes about 15 minutes to answer, and Bradley said it asks questions to find out where kids are staying if they aren’t in shelters, how they’re surviving, if they are working, if they’re in school, reasons they left home, what services they are accessing, and what services they still need.

"It’s really just to get a bit of picture of what’s happening with youth when we do find them," he said.

Counties included in the survey are Cumberland, York, Franklin, Kennebec, Androscoggin, Knox and Oxford.

Preble Street’s partners in the count are New Beginnings in Androscoggin and Franklin counties; Tedford Housing in Cumberland County; Kennebec Behavioral Health in Kennebec County; Knox County Homeless Coalition and Penquis CAP in Knox County; Rumford Group Homes in Oxford County, and The Opportunity Alliance in York County.

Although the count lasts a week, Bradley said it specifically looks at the night of May 18. He said the benefit of using a single point in time is so it can be compared to other point-in-time surveys done across the country.

"By getting the word out and having a way to reach us in each county, we hope over time word will get out and we will be able to do followups," Bradley said.

He said preliminary findings show officials in school districts are often aware of youths who are couch surfing or unstably housed.

"We’re trying to determine how many there are, how schools are locating, finding and becoming aware of these kids," he said.

He said the hope is to have a full report by fall.