LEWISTON — These days Michael Casey, 20, has a job at McDonald's, lives with a roommate and pays his own rent.
Life wasn't always this good for him.
“If I didn't have these programs I'd still be sleeping in a Dumpster,” he said at the New Beginnings drop-in center for homeless youth and youth at risk of being homeless.
Casey became homeless at 13 when he ran away from a Bangor area foster home he described as intolerable. He's been in and out of shelters and programs, lived in the woods and walked the streets.
“It sucks,” Casey said. “You go hungry a lot. You go without sleep a lot. A lot of people aren't very nice to homeless people.”
D.J. Martin, 20, is another who frequents the New Beginnings drop-in center.
Martin, who grew up in Bangor, said he became homeless two years ago.
“The day I turned 18 I was at Job Corps," Martin said. "I get a call from my grandparents wishing me a happy birthday, and telling me I can't come home. They adopted me when I was 13 (and), their rule was once you've become 18 and self-sufficient, you're out the door.”
He moved from Bangor to Lewiston after his pregnant girlfriend moved to the area. He moved to be near his son, he said.
“I had $50 to my name," Martin said. "I spent $25 on a tent, $25 on gas to pay my friend to move me.” With no money and no friends, he said he lived “on a pitcher's mound in Sabattus.” He since found a friend to live with.
Martin visits New Beginnings “to chill out, get something to eat or supplies, like toilet paper.” As he talked he watched his 16-month-old son nap in a stroller.
On a typical day, several dozen youths age 14-21 are at the drop-in center, getting advice from a caseworker, playing pool, using a computer, washing clothes, getting something to eat.
Some are living, or have lived, on the streets or on different couches at night. Some are living with adults who may not be their relatives, or at adult shelters, like Hope Haven, said Bob Rowe, executive director of New Beginnings.
“A good percentage of the kids here are at risk of being homeless," he said. "The slightest thing can tip them off into homelessness.”
He shared an example.
They've worked at Work Ready and have their rent covered for the month, but can't pay their electric bill and face eviction.
“We work with case management to see if there's a way to pay the electric bill so they don't lose housing,” Rowe said. “Once they go over to homelessness, they're completely vulnerable.”
The drop-in center hosts 40 kids every day, most who have not finished high school, Rowe said.
“The unemployment is 40 percent for youth this age,” much higher than the 7.1 percent unemployment rate for the general population.
Most of the kids in the center “haven't been with their parents for years,” said Outreach Director Marc Madore.
They've been kicked out, left, or placed in foster care. They lack the normal family support most youth have, and don't trust adults, Rowe said.
Building trust is something New Beginnings case managers works on, Rowe said.
“The design of the program is to be low barrier. Kids walk through the door, get something to eat, play pool.” If they keep coming, a staffer asks them “what's up,” Rowe said. What are their plans, their goals, and what help do they need to get there.
Last year 400 youths came into the drop-in center, Rowe said. The center has outgrown its space at 245 Lisbon St., and plans call for it to move to larger quarters on College Street, when enough money is raised.
Of the 400 kids who went to the center last year, 170 formally asked for help and were assigned caseworkers, which comes with expectations, Rowe said. That leads to some getting a place to live in one of New Beginnings shelter or programs, or counseling, help with getting a job or going back to school.
“One of our goals as a youth development agency is to assist youth,” teach them there are consequences for bad behavior, and rewards for motivation.
Martin had what he called a good construction job in Bangor, and said he's looking for work.
Casey says he's taken some welding classes. “I'm saving up money to get my welding and electrician's license.”
New Beginnings 2011 highlights
Bed nights where youth were safe, off the streets: 15,421.
Meals served at shelter and drop-in center: 14,000.
Street contacts through outreach programs in Lewiston and Farmington: 1,300. Number of youth enrolled in case management, 170.
Characteristics of youth: 55 percent female; 45 percent male; average age, 18 years, 4 months; 36 percent were pregnant or parents; 85 percent white, 12 percent black, 3 percent hispanic.
Of those in case management, 80 percent found housing, 93 percent achieved one major goal. Agencies that provide services at drop-in, Advocates for Children, Sexual Assault Prevention, YMCA, College for Me.
New Beginnings 2011 budget: $2.8 million. Funding sources, 31 percent federal; 64 percent state, 2 percent from United Way; 3 percent donations and foundations.
For more: www.newbeginmaine.org
Source: New Beginnings