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Homelessness on the rise among Maine students

Brett Plymale
For Maine Public
A student experiencing homelessness in 2019.

Student homelessness is on the rise in Maine.

According to the Maine Department of Education, 2,186 students in the state are experiencing housing insecurity this year, nearly 60% more compared to the last five years.

"This marks a noticeable increase from the previous five years, which had an average of 1,384 students identified for housing insecurity," Julie Smyth, the director of school and student supports for Maine DOE, said Friday in written testimony to state lawmakers. "Students who experience homelessness face numerous barriers to education, including high rates of chronic absence, mobility, academic challenges, and trauma."

Maine receives a small amount of federal funds each year through what's known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which go to school liaisons to them identify students who need help.

That money can't be used for rental assistance, but that changed during the pandemic, when schools received several million dollars in federal relief to help families pay for temporary housing.

"Ten years ago Biddeford had three students identified as homeless. Today we serve more than 60 families who are homeless," said Chris Indor, who serves as a McKinney-Vento liaison for Biddeford, Saco and Dayton schools. "In Saco, we're serving around 120 cases, including nearly 100 asylum seekers."

Pandemic relief funds that schools have been using to provide rental relief or help families with unpaid utility bills will expire next year.

"Schools can act quickly," said Victoria Morales, the executive director of the Quality Housing Coalition, which has worked with school liaisons to use federal pandemic funds to provide families with rental assistance. "They can get a check out very, very quickly and don't have to go through a lot of hurdles. And they're the first responders, really. They know first when students are experiencing these crises."

The Legislature is considering a bill that would pilot a new state fund allowing schools to more easily access emergency resources.