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Maine youth experience homelessness amidst affordable housing shortage

Preble Street said its 24-bed Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter has been at-capacity the majority of nights the past two weeks, as of Wednesday, June 8.

WESTBROOK, Maine — 18-year-old Anthony Phillips is in a position most teenagers hopefully will never have to experience. For months, he has been living in hotels with his parents, his older brother, and his two younger siblings. Most recently, they have been staying at the Casco Bay Hotel in South Portland, near the mall.

"It’s definitely not ideal. There’s not much privacy, sadly," Anthony said.

Two weeks ago on May 25, the family received a notice that it would no longer even be an option, though. The Maine State Housing Authority changed its eligibility standards for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, as of June 1, leaving the Phillips family with no place to go. They were able to get an extension through Pine Tree Legal Assistance to stay at the Casco Bay Hotel until June 30 — but after that, their future is up in the air.

"If push comes to shove, we’re going to have to be at a little campground for a little [while] until we can find something," Anthony said. 

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He said he has peeked at Craiglist and Zillow but noticed even just two-bedroom apartments are coming in at more than $2,500. He said his dad and his mom both work, even after his mom lost her job — but finding affordable housing has been challenging after they were evicted from their apartment earlier this year, following tension with their landlord and increasing rent prices.

"Where are we supposed to go? Sleep with a tent outside and stuff?" Jeremiah said. "This isn’t the first time this has happened. My family has had to sleep in a car before."

Jeremiah said for him, not having a stable living condition has made it difficult to find and keep a job. He said he also has concerns that their family may end up staying at a homeless shelter — a destination he doesn't consider suitable for his eight-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister.

"A lot of people there are suffering from really bad mental illnesses, and there’s a lot of people with addiction problems," Jeremiah said.

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Katie Garrity is a social worker with the Westbrook School Department who knows the Phillips family. She said when she first took on this role nine years ago, there were four students experiencing homelessness. Now, there are around 120 — and Garrity said that's likely an underestimate.

"Right now, families are just losing housing, and they’re not finding housing again," Garrity said, noting about 25 students have been affected by the ERA program changes.

Garrity said homelessness as defined by the Maine Department of Education through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act refers to a number of situations — like students living with extended family or friends because of a lack of or loss of housing; students staying at hotels, motels, or campgrounds; unsheltered students; and students in unsuitable living conditions. 

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Garrity said under the McKinney-Vento act, she works to make sure students experiencing homelessness can stay in their school district, regardless of where they move. The goal is to try to maintain some sort of consistency, even when a living situation is changing.

"A lot of families have a lot of transitions or moves during their times being homeless, so it would be really hard to also switch school districts every time," Garrity said.

Garrity said not having stable housing is a stressful situation, and it can sometimes get in the way of students' learning — or result in behavioral issues.

"That would be really hard, having to get rid of all your belongings, or having them put in storage," Garrity said. "It would be really hard not knowing where are you going to go each night."

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For the past couple of weeks, the 24-bed Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter at Preble Street in Portland has been at-capacity most nights, according to Leah McDonald, senior director of teen services at Preble Street. She said youth who come there are from a variety of backgrounds, but many are experiencing generational poverty, identify as LGBTQ+, are New Mainers, or are dealing with mental illness or substance use. 

"In recent years and recent months, the prevalence has grown fairly dramatically," McDonald said.

McDonald said when kids are focusing on survival skills, they're often missing out on putting their full attention into other opportunities — like school.

"It changes everything when you don’t have a stable place to sleep; you don’t know where you going to sleep that night; you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from," McDonald said.

McDonald said Preble Street is in need of landlords to partner with to provide more affordable housing. There are incentives. You can learn more here. Youth in need of help can email teenoutreach@preblestreet.org.

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Sarah Austin, a staff attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said so far, they have been in contact with 96 parties affected by the ERA program changes. They have been able to help about 72 stay in their hotel rooms, for the time-being. 

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