NORWAY — One thing is certain. Homelessness among teens is a real problem in the Oxford Hills, community leaders and educators said this week.
About 60 people gathered at the Second Congregational Church on Tuesday evening to discuss the problems, including the current services, where they are falling short and how to meet the needs of homeless teens. The group agreed that education is the first step in addressing the problem.
“I’m hoping there will be a series of education forums,” the Rev. Leslie Foley of the Second Congregational Church said at the end of the meeting, which was attended by educators, law enforcement officials, teen program organizers and others. “The starting point seems to be around education itself,” Foley said.
She said the idea for this week’s forum came about through conversations with various community organizations and individuals.
“This thing kept coming back,” Foley said. She decided she would try to put all the people in one room and “start a conversation. It seems a lot of community services and nonprofits could work more effectively to address this issue,” Foley said. “A lot of people are offering services for different groups. I wanted to bring people together.” The number of homeless teenagers is a hard one to pin down, she said, adding it ranged from about 20 to 100.
Rebecca Cummings, homeless coordinator for SAD 17, said Monday that she reported to the state this year that 46 SAD 17 students from kindergarten through grade 12 are homeless. The number is deceiving, however. “The classification is so broad,” Cummings said. “We’ve entered 46 (students) on this year’s list but this doesn’t mean they all are (homeless) at this moment.”
Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools are mandated to provide the number of homeless teens to the state, usually at the end of the school year. The numbers include those who live in shelters with a parent, others who may be forced out of their home by fire and live in a motel for several weeks and still others who may be “doubled-up” living with a grandparent.
Both Foley and Cummings say one of the largest groups of homeless teenagers are those categorized as “couch surfers.” They’re called “couch surfers” because the young people simply go from one couch to another, wherever there is a place to rest that night. “Some are legitimately homeless,” Cummings said. “It’s a very broad definition.” Of the 46 that are entered into state statistics as homeless in SAD 17, 20 are students in grades nine through 12 who have left home, Cummings said.
The irony, she said, is once summer vacation starts, none of them are considered homeless because school is not in session. As homeless coordinator, Cummings is responsible for ensuring the students receive a free lunch and breakfast, that they have transportation to school and that nothing impedes their education. For that reason and with a small budget, she is able to buy things like shampoo, deodorant and even underwear for homeless students who need these items.
But she does not put them up in housing. Housing, is one of the reasons that Foley said she came up with the idea for the forum. “We have a building, the Parish House, which is currently not in use. The trustees started polling people to decide what it might be used for. At the same time I started asking people in the community what they saw as the greatest needs. A lot of ideas were bounced around. Several people came forth and said, ‘We really need to do something about the homeless teens in the community,'” Foley explained.
Though the Parish House next to the church has been empty for the past year and one half, “I would love to see a shelter. I think it would be utilized,” she said. Foley said she hopes to continue the conversation about homeless teens in the next few months with another community forum. Meanwhile, efforts are under way to list the resources available for homeless teens.

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