In many rural towns across Maine, schools are on the front lines of the effort to identify students who are homeless or displaced, and to help them with basic needs like clothing, food and health care.
This is the third story in the weeklong series "Finding A Way."
Cecilia Sirianni's small office at Massabesic High School can sometimes get a bit messy. Piles of clothes and boxes of snacks fill cabinets and shelves. They are for the many students who come in every day.
Sirianni's official job title for RSU 57 is the “outreach services coordinator.” A big part of that job is working with teachers and administrators to connect with students and families across the district who are homeless or displaced in order to help them meet some basic needs.
“These students are also trying to be students,” Sirianni says. “They're trying be kids and teenagers. And they're dealing with all this adult stuff: 'Where's my food? I have to figure out how to get home. I don't have warm clothing.' And trying to just fit in and be kids.”
It is a role you do not always see in schools. But local officials say it is essential in this rural district, where poverty, food insecurity and homelessness are prevalent, but often hidden from public view.
“Since there isn't shelter, we have a lot of families — I'll use the term ‘inadequately housed.’ We are talking about 10 people living in a two-bedroom home,” Sirianni says. “And that's the best they can do.”
On one morning, Sirianni sits down with Savannah, a senior at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. Savannah moved to Maine as a young child. At age 11, with her father in prison, she says was taken into foster care and separated from her brother, because her mother's house was ruled unsafe. Over the past few years, Savannah says she was required to constantly watch other children in her foster home and was treated like an outsider.
“At dinner, it'd be them, I'd be at the other corner,” she says. “I'd make them breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'd clean up after the kids. I'd give the kids showers. I folded their clothes, did their laundry.”
Savannah says she later discovered that some of her biological family had tried to make contact, and she was not told. Over time, she packed her belongings in trash bags and backpacks. One night, she left for good and stayed with a friend.
“I remember, I was just like smiling. It was like, the world was lifted off my shoulders because I, just, I was unhappy,” she says. “And I'm a happy person. I was just sick of being unhappy and needed to leave.”
For now she is staying with a friend's family. While she feels better in the new arrangement, she has been forced to navigate a brand new adult world: figuring out health care, food, college and financial aid applications. It is a common story for many students.
Back in Sirianni's office, another student has come in, seeking help to access food benefits. Sirianni had helped her submit an application to the state but they have yet to hear back, so they call again. They are put on hold, and after more than half an hour, they decide to hang up and try again that afternoon, as the student has already missed a lot of class time.
Sirianni says it is frustrating to watch young people try to work their way through a system that can be complicated — even for experienced adults — and one that rarely meshes with the seven hour school day.
“They're coming to school, they're working, going to vocational school, living outside the district,” she says. “How many more obstacles or challenges can we put in front of these kids? And hurdles to jump over, just to have health benefits and food?”
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools are required to transport and educate students, as well as establish a local "liaison" to work with families, staff and outside service providers. But Gayle Erdheim, with the state Department of Education, says the job has varied from school to school – and some of those liaisons just did not have enough time to do the job well.
“I do think that schools are getting better at recognizing that it's not just a role on a piece of paper,” Erdheim says. “It's a job that has to get done. And they need to be more serious in making sure people have the time to do that work.”
In fact, she says, the recent reauthorization of the federal law requires that local liaisons have capacity to do their work, which she says has led districts to begin emphasizing those responsibilities.
As the end of the school year approaches, Savannah has managed to fill out every form and piece of paper to work through complicated financial aid and college applications — made even more complicated by the fact that she has had so many guardians over the past few years. Savannah says it took days of meetings with Sirianni and others to sort through the process.
“Let's say Cecilia's position never existed, and I really did have to do this on my own,” she says. “I remember trying it on my own, and just thinking, what the heck?”
“All this stuff is just so overwhelming,” says Sirianni. “Luckily, we catch some of those kids, and those kids talk to each other and bring them to me, and guidance. But I can't imagine the number of students who exist and walk silently, feel like they should be able to do this, and they can't.”
For Savannah, at least, the help has made a difference. She has been accepted to college and hopes to study psychology. She says she wants to improve the system that she had to go through as a child — so that other kids might have it a little bit easier.
Maine Public’s reporting on issues affecting teenagers and young adults in Maine is made possible with support from the John T. Gorman Foundation.