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Maine's housing crisis contributes to a big increase in student homelessness

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The state of Maine is launching a first-of-its-kind program under which schools can financially assist families with rent, utilities and other household expenses. As Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports, it comes as the state has seen a huge surge in students experiencing homelessness.

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ROBBIE FEINBERG: Inside the basement of an old school building in the central Maine town of Lewiston, Jamie Caouette rips open a trash bag full of donated clothes, just one of dozens overflowing in a large pile on the floor. Caouette is the director of The Store Next Door. It's a resource center for the district's hundreds of homeless students, offering everything from shirts and shoes to a hot shower.

JAMIE CAOUETTE: 'Cause a lot of kids won't go to school if they don't have nutrition, clothing, just a lot of their basic needs. So these kids can graduate and get through their school day.

FEINBERG: Caouette's day starts well before the bell rings. The bare-bones staff here are constantly texting and answering phone calls, trying to help a growing number of students and families navigating a maze of social services to find a place to stay.

CAOUETTE: So a lot of the time, the youth just wants to be in school and not want to figure out this stuff nor do they know how. They're not an adult, and they've never had to navigate these things before. So they're really looking for support.

FEINBERG: In recent years, the number of students experiencing homelessness in Maine has skyrocketed, putting new pressure on school districts across the state.

CHRIS INDORF: With the state of housing in southern Maine, we've seen our homeless cases rise exponentially in all three communities.

FEINBERG: Chris Indorf is the assistant superintendent for the coastal Maine communities of Biddeford, Saco and Dayton. He says in recent years, the district paid to put a family into a motel for two weeks after discovering they were living in the back of a U-Haul in the winter. Another family didn't have the money to deal with a bedbug infestation.

INDORF: And so we were able to use funds from our Biddeford Education Foundation to pay for a company to go in and to treat the home so that the kids can continue to access their education.

FEINBERG: A 2020 study found that before the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of Maine's evictions were filed as a result of a tenant only owing an average of about $1,300. And officials are hoping the new state program can help to fill in that financial gap. Federal law requires each school to have a liaison to assist students in families who don't have stable housing. And Amelia Lyons Rukema with the Maine Department of Education says that those liaisons can now spend up to $750 to help families pay for bills such as rent, utilities or home repairs.

AMELIA LYONS RUKEMA: It's going to change lives. That's what liaisons have been telling me. There's a flood of relief that comes over them because they say, oh, finally, I have something I can actually do to help in these situations.

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FEINBERG: Back at The Store Next Door in Lewiston, director Jamie Caouette says any additional support is welcome. But she says if housing continues to be scarce and unaffordable, the number of homeless families will only keep climbing.

CAOUETTE: And if we don't have buildings that people can afford to live in, of course our population is going to increase. So we have all these problems, and I just - I don't know the solution.

FEINBERG: The Maine legislature plans to evaluate the program's effects over the next two years. And nationally, some groups are watching it as a potential model for other states as schools look for new ways to assist homeless students.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Portland, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINEARWAVE'S "POSTCARDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robbie grew up in New Hampshire, but has since written stories for radio stations from Washington, D.C., to a fishing village in Alaska. Robbie graduated from the University of Maryland and got his start in public radio at the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Before arriving at Maine Public Radio, he worked in the Midwest, where he covered everything from beer to migrant labor for public radio station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
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