AUBURN — High school senior Sam Chamberlain, 18, is making his life experience work for him, and others.
After living in three homeless shelters for the past two years, Chamberlain has become a homeless youth advocate.
Working with the Maine Homeless Youth Providers, last fall the Edward Little High School student asked Gov. Paul LePage to issue a proclamation making November homeless youth awareness month.
Chamberlain wrote the proclamation and submitted it to legislators and the governor’s office. “He took the initiative. He did a nice job,” said Bob Rowe of New Beginnings of Lewiston. LePage, who himself was a homeless teen on the streets of Lewiston, signed it and met with Chamberlain.
This month Chamberlain attended a national conference on homelessness in Los Angeles. His flight and expenses are being paid by the conference, he said.
“I am excited,” he said. He went to learn how other states are handling homeless youth, and use that knowledge to help in Maine.
The staff at his high school is impressed.
“He is an outstanding representative for Edward Little, a good ambassador in anything and everything he does,” Edward Little Assistant Principal Steve Galway said. Not only is Chamberlain a good student, “he’s an outstanding citizen,” Galway said.
Chamberlain said he became homeless in the summer of 2009. He and his family weren’t getting along. Tired of the “yelling and screaming,” he and his parents agreed he would leave, Chamberlain said. He was reluctant to give specifics, but said he was more comfortable in a homeless shelter.
But moving to a shelter at age 16 “was scary,” he said. “All of a sudden I’m sharing a room with someone I don’t know. It was uncomfortable, but I’m grateful for it.”
During his intake evaluation, hearing the noise around him, he was nervous. His unease let up when he was welcomed at his first supper.
At another home, Chamberlain lived with youth who had mental health issues. “It got scary sometimes, but it worked out.”
He’s had to maneuver programs to avoid not having a place to stay.
Today he lives in an apartment for homeless youth, and can stay there through December. By then he’ll be in college. After graduation in June, he plans to attend Southern Maine Community College and become a paramedic.
Chamberlain said he does not have financial support from his family, and qualifies for food stamps and MaineCare. He gets to and from school by rides from Community Concepts.
He works at a movie theater. “I don’t have a vehicle. I’m on my own” for getting to and from work. Sometimes he walks or rides his bike, other times he gets a ride from co-workers.
Most of his needs are met, he said, but being on his own requires some juggling.
It took him a while to tell people he was homeless. “I don’t want this to be something that defines me.” As an advocate, part of his intention is to highlight challenges and promote understanding.
Homeless isn’t just couch surfing, living in a car or motel or park bench. It’s also having no home, he said.
There aren’t enough programs for youths, and some adult shelters won’t accept minors, he said. “There are absolutely youth living under bridges.” He knows of kids who have bought tarps at Goodwill and lived temporarily under the Veterans Memorial bridge.
When someone is homeless and under age 18, “you have such a minimal amount of legal rights. You can’t just walk into a business and say, ‘I want a job.’ A lot of youth don’t have Social Security cards or birth certificates. It’s difficult for them to provide identities, and hard to get a job.”
If there were more family counseling available, that could prevent some kids from becoming homeless, he said.
There are some homeless youth who have given up, Chamberlain said. “Their parents are in and out of rehab, in and out of jail. They’ve never been there for them. They’ve followed in those footsteps.” They don’t believe they’re smart, and don’t go to school, he said.
But there are others who have not given up. “If a homeless youth is attending school, they want to better their life,” he said.
They want to be taken seriously by adults, especially employers.
He goes to school every day, does his work and is a good student. “Education is very important to me,” he said. In the last two years “my grades did not deteriorate.”
“A homeless youth is the same as any other youth. We all just want to be normal, or as close to normal as possible.”