LEWISTON — The timing was just right. As more than 100 people jammed into a room at City Hall to talk about youth homelessness Thursday night, the temperature was dropping outside. The winds started whipping and the night turned frigid.
It was hard to imagine anyone surviving without a home on a night like this, but they're out there. As many as 200 youths in Lewiston alone are considered homeless. They are young people with parents who are abusive, drug addled or just absent. They range from high-school age all the way down to the elementary level, and they have no place to go.
Presented by the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council, the event featured a film detailing the plights of two local teenagers who were, for a time, homeless.
There was Kat, now 18 years old, who spent many of her young years hopping from couch to couch or living on the streets. Her parents were alcoholics and drug addicts. She ended up on the streets, seemingly doomed before her young life had really begun.
"I was house hopping, just staying at random places," she said. She was going to school but going high on one drug or another. "By freshman year, I was doing hard drugs every day."
She stopped going to school. She spent nights with friends, in cars or on the streets. Then she found help through the various local programs such as New Beginnings and Lewiston High School's STEP Program. Now she's sober and working to put together a happy life.
And there's Kendra, also 18 and also a veteran of the mean streets. She and her brothers fled their home to escape drug-abusing parents. For a time, they lived with their grandmother, who had mental health issues, in a tiny downtown apartment.
While other kids talked about clothes and new cellphones, Kendra had to worry about buying groceries and keeping her family together.
"It made me realize," she said, "how abnormal my life was."
Kendra also found help. With help, she overcame great odds. Now she's a senior in high school and she's applied to 11 colleges.
Inspiring. And also shocking because for every success story, there are a dozen kids who might never make it off the streets.
By the time the film was over, there were a lot of stunned faces — a lot of throat-clearing and swiping of the eyes.
Eye-opening, they said. And startling.
Gov. Paul LePage, borderline homeless himself as a kid, was no exception. He stood up to say a few words at the end of the film and his own eyes were red.
"Believe me," the governor said, "I'm no stranger to it. The inspiring thing is that these people recognize the problem. The second thing is that they're doing something about it."
Members of the Youth Council were not immune to the emotion of the moment. They had heard these stories before but they were no less unnerving a second time or a third.
"It makes me very thankful and grateful. It made me realize that I shouldn't take things for granted," said Courtney Costello, vice chairwoman of the Youth Council. "The main lesson I learned is to never judge a book by its cover."
Youth Council member Nairus Abdullahi echoed that. She said she was shocked when she first met Kat and heard her story.
"She's really pretty," Abdullahi said. "She seems very outgoing. If I'd seen her at the mall, I would not have guessed, not for one minute, that she was in a homeless shelter."
Four formerly homeless teens were originally interviewed for the program. Two of them, citing safety issues, asked to be removed from the documentary.
The two remaining were plenty. For nearly an hour, the standing-room-only crowd was spellbound by the stories. They appeared equally stunned by the services that are available just to handle the problem of homeless youth.
The high school in Lewiston has two homeless liaisons where most schools need only one. New Beginnings reports 400 youths a year coming into its drop-in center and equally startling numbers seeking help in its shelters.
Few people realize how bad the problem is, said New Beginnings Director Bob Rowe, because homeless youth don't always fit the classic skid-row stereotypes.
"They're not the typical homeless person sleeping on a grate," he said.
The presentation was originally going to be held in a room at L/A Arts. Then word got around and the anticipated crowd got much too large and the event had to be moved to City Hall.
"We received so many phone calls and emails from people who wanted to attend," said Community Relations Coordinator Dottie Perham-Whittier, an adviser on the program. "The interest has been really high and we're excited about that."
The aim of the presentation wasn't to find a "cure" for homelessness, said Kon Maiwan, chairman of the Youth Advisory Committee and host of the event.
"No one is going to solve this overnight," Maiwan said.
At the end of the documentary, the crowd stood for a long ovation. They had a lot of questions. Most wanted to know what they can do to help.
At the end of the night, when people began filing out of the building and into the bitter cold, one woman said she had come because she fears her grandson may descend into homelessness. She was shocked and gratified that so many agencies and people are out there willing to help.
Precisely the point, Rowe said. Willingness to take part is half the battle. Hopefully, more struggling kids can be aided before they need places such as shelters or rehabilitation centers.
"People taking care of people is the first and foremost prevention," he said. "These programs are a last resort."
New Beginnings Shelter
795-4070 and 795-4071
Lewiston High School STEP Program
795-4190, x2214 and x2215
Volunteers of America
Northern New England
240-4846 and 907-5035
The National 24-7 Runaway Switchboard
National Crisis Hotline