Maine's affordable housing crisis is contributing to a big increase in student homelessness
Inside the basement of an old school building in Lewiston, Jamie Caouette rips open a trash bag full of donated clothes — just one of dozens of bags overflowing in a large pile on the floor.
Caouette is the director of the Store Next Door, a resource center for the hundreds of students experiencing homelessness in the district, offering everything from shirts and shoes to a hot shower.
"Because a lot of kids won't go to school, if they don't have nutrition, clothing, just a lot of their basic needs," Caouette said. "We really base it on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. So these kids can graduate, and get through their school day."
The day for the two staffers at the center often starts well before 8 a.m., and Caouette said the texts, phone calls and knocks on the door are constant. Just the day before, the team worked with 11 new families, trying to navigate them through a maze of social services to find help.
"So a lot of the time, the youth just want to be in school, and not want to figure out this stuff, nor do they know how," Caouette said. "They're not an adult, and they've never had to navigate these things before. So they're really looking for support."
Lewiston school officials said that during the last school year, the district identified more than 320 students experiencing homelessness — more than double the level from two years before, and part of a significant increase in need statewide.
"So we have seen a significant increase in students who are eligible. and who are getting identified," said Amelia Lyons Rukema, the specialist at the Maine Department of Education for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Rukema said across Maine, the number of students identified as homeless skyrocketed to more than 4,400 during the 2022-23 school year.
Part of that increase, Rukema said, is due to schools becoming better trained in how to identify students in need. But she said a severe lack of affordable housing is also a major factor.
"I do think this is due to our affordable housing crisis, inflation wages, the waitlist for programming, the overflow of shelters, and all the resources that are being really, really strapped right now," Rukema said.
Chris Indorf, the assistant superintendent for schools in Biddeford and Saco, said that before the pandemic, student homelessness was typically temporary — just a month or so — as a relatively ample housing supply made it somewhat easier for families to find a new apartment.
"Now the homelessness seems to be endemic. It's lasting an entire year, or it's spanning years," Indorf said. "Most of those cases aren't destitution — aren't tents out behind the Starbucks. They tend to be intergenerational, families living with other families. Part of that is due to the economy. And a good part of that is owing to just extremely limited housing stock in Biddeford and Saco, and what is available is exorbitantly expensive."
Maine has recently received about $300,000 per year in federal funding to support homeless students, to cover needs such as school supplies, and buses to transport students across the state to get them to school.
As the issue has grown more urgent, though, the state has designated about $10 million over the past three years in additional support.
Some of that money has gone towards partnerships between the state, schools, and groups such as Preble Street and New Beginnings. But Rukema, with the Maine DOE, said schools are still hampered by staff shortages and limited resources.
"We are in a transportation crisis right now. It is so hard to find drivers, to find vehicles, to make these routes work," she said. "Yes, I do believe that districts still need more support for better able to get these students connected to everything."
At the Store Next Door in Lewiston, director Jamie Caouette is thankful for the added assistance. With the help of federal funds, Caouette said the resource center has been moved from a cramped classroom to an expansive space with washers, dryers, showers, and even an area for clinicians to talk with students.
But even with the additional resources, Caouette worries that the situation for students and families won't get much better until the state tackles the severe lack of affordable housing.
"So if we keep on increasing rent, and we have all these families, like, of course, our homeless population is going to increase," Caouette said. "And if we don't have buildings that people can afford to live in, of course, our population is going to increase. We have all these problems, and I just don't know the solution."
State officials are hoping that part of that solution could be a pilot program, launched this fall, under which schools can help pay for students' emergency expenses — such as rent or a home repair — to ensure that a roof stays over their head.