Invisible homelessness: Maine teens on the streets

(NEWS CENTER) — Maine is at the heart of a national study that many will find hard to believe.

More than 2,000 young people in Maine have no home and find themselves scrambling for shelter, food and respect.

Even during the harshest of Maine’s winter months, there are thousands who live outside—under bridges, in the woods, in storage units, in cars, couch surfing. Even harder to believe is the age: 10- to 24-year-olds.

“I was struggling my whole life so it’s normal for me to run into people or to know people who are in those situations. So, I don’t see it as, ‘oh, Maine, there are no issues like that here.’ There are a ton. There is a lot going on under the radar,” said Natachia, who is 20 and pregnant. “My family has had a lot of struggling in their life so I never came from people who either were rich or not struggling or good to go with everything,” she explained.

Natachia recently checked into Hospitality House in Rockland. The Knox County shelter is designed to help young families. At Hospitality, she is receiving services she and her soon to be born baby need: access to healthcare, transportation and the opportunity to speak with professionals.

“I’ve been homeless off and on since I was 16-years-old, but even before then I can never really recall a time in my life where I had a very stable living environment,” shared Zachariah, from his Rumford apartment.

He has moved more than he can count, most often staying with family or friends on the couch, also known as couch surfing. When that’s not available, some young people head outside: in the woods,under a bridge, in a car.

Karen, who has three young daughters, understands that situation.

“For probably seven years, I was bouncing between family and friends and car and what not,” Karen said.

She, Zachariah and Natachia are all part of a growing problem in Maine: youth homelessness.

“It is a huge problem. Much bigger than we knew,” explained Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street, which runs the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter in Portland.

Bradley says desperation has pushed an alarming number of the young and homeless to make unsafe choices.

“The kids who are what we would call trafficking, in terms of sex trafficking, trading a bed, you know, for a place to stay for sex. And we’ve seen much more of that over the years than we used to,” Bradley shared.

In southern Maine last year, there were more than a hundred cases of sex trafficking. The youngest involved? Age 15. Nationally, a 10-year-old.

“They don’t see any hope, they don’t trust people to take care of them or to give them help,” said Bradley.

Determining who and where these young people are has prompted a national homeless teen count, and Maine figures prominently. The state of Maine is the first rural state to be examined. And so far, the numbers are telling a fairly grim story. Estimates of more than 2,000 youth—ages 12 to 24, who are homeless on any given night here in Maine. And, the number of youth at-risk for homelessness is even greater.

“We looked at both rural and urban communities across the state…we went by county, we did seven counties,” Bradley stated. “There were real differences between the kids we were seeing in our cities, where shelters are located and in the real rural areas where there are very few resources.”

In fact, the state of Maine has only three shelters dedicated to homeless youth in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, which makes finding and helping homeless and runaway youth difficult.

“We do street outreach and engage kids. There are some 200 kids,some who we don’t see but we give them food support to, we have actually packs that include toiletries and other necessities for people on the street. That includes most of the youth, I think, in Portland.”

Bradley is working with non-profits in the seven counties, zeroing in on rural regions located several hours from youth shelters. Towns like Rumford, a struggling mill town community where jobs are scarce and resources to fund group homes, dwindling. And Rockland, dealing with a tremendous homeless issue, which belies its picturesque coastline.

“It’s a tragedy to think that in this beautiful part of our country and Maine that this is happening and it’s quite prevalent. It’s a humanitarian issue,” Stephanie Primm said.

Primm runs Hospitality House, the Knox County shelter for young families and adults. Open just over two years, the shelter has helped over 2,000 people.

“64 percent of our clients describe coming from a generational poverty scenario, so that’s often inclusive of a combination of abuse, low education or really no opportunity,” Primm continued. “They’re people who never really had a chance. It’s sad because there’s a lot of judgement of underprivileged people, of the poor. Some people use the word demonization,” she explained.

Primm and her three daughters wound up at Hospitality House after bouncing from friends’ couches to living out of a car. Now, she has an apartment and works at the shelter’s food pantry.

“It helped my confidence, it helped get paperwork and stuff done and everybody here is so nice,” Karen told us.

Many arrive at Hospitality under extreme stress—money problems, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, disease, death. They’ve been tested to the limit. Abbey and her young daughter arrived a week ago.

“I needed to be here, trying to find my own place, get everything situated on my own,” Abbey said.

There are pockets of Maine that simply have nothing in place to help the homeless, particularly the young and homeless. Still, those who do find help often face judgement and enormous hurdles.

“Without an address, you can’t get a library card, you can’t get an ID, you can’t go to the food bank and get meals, you can’t even put down an address on a job application because you don’t have an address. It’s almost as if you don’t exist,” Zachariah quietly shared.

“Our big challenge as workers and people in this field is to connect with them and build relationships and even the staff use themselves as mentors as adults that are different can be trusted, will accept behaviors, for us that’s the harm reduction piece,” Jon Bradley said.

Back in Rockland, Stephanie Primm gives us a view of the land she is hoping to cultivate as Hospitality House’s farm. Her dream is to grow produce for local restaurants in nearby Camden, Rockport and in Rockland. She’s also hoping to expand the shelter to make room for even more young families in need.

“We really need people to understand that this is real, this is very real and these are people who can succeed if they’re given a chance,and they’re given support.”