LEWISTON — Mary Seaman is hoping more people will do what Lewiston City Hall workers did last week: donate money to help homeless students in exchange for wearing jeans to work.

Seaman and Tammy Fecteau run a homeless liaison program housed at Lewiston High School. The program is called Students Transitioning, Experiencing Progress, or STEP.

Working with youths and families lacking permanent homes has always been tough. These days, the job’s tougher, both said.

Most years, STEP provides help and gifts for up to 100 students at Christmastime. This year, the group is struggling to give a Christmas to 25.

While donations continue to come from longtime, faithful supporters (Seaman said she’s thankful to “Linda at Food City”), the demand for help has grown. At the same time, support has dwindled, said Seaman, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison.

Seaman said she has less ability to refer students to organizations to get services.

Volunteers of America “is gone, closed,” Seaman said. Volunteers of America used to provide housing and case management to Lewiston students.

What’s left is New Beginnings, which provides emergency shelter and some housing. It’s a great option, Seaman said, but now it is the only one.

Meanwhile, some longtime donors have moved on to other projects. Some individuals who used to contribute can’t anymore. The tough economy “has been dragged out for so long, those who had a cushion have spent the cushion,” Seaman said.

The program’s so-called “Store Next Door,” which gives supplies to needy students, is hurting, Seaman said. It’s in need of basic supplies for students, including food, boots, winter coats, hats, mittens, socks, belts, battery-powered alarm clocks, lip balm, individually wrapped toilet paper and individually wrapped paper towels.

Seaman pointed to a shelf with a few rolls of toilet paper. “Did you get your toilet paper from school?” she asked. “This was a full case.”

In general, homeless students are not living in tents and under bridges. “Most are housed, but are homeless. They don’t have a permanent home,” Seaman said. They might spend a couple of nights at one house, then move on to another.

Some students can’t live with their parents because of substance abuse or other dysfunctions. Some families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

In the past two years, more families are doubled up in apartments, Seaman said. “Entire motels on lower Lisbon Road are filled with transient families, displaced people trying to get by.”

Dozens and dozens of unaccompanied youths are living together, Seaman said. Those students are in survival mode, she said. “How can you worry about your algebra homework if you don’t know where you’re putting your slippers at night?”

The program is having a hard time doing what it used to do, providing new shoes, new clothes. “We’re putting kids in used sneakers for gym,” she said.

The program is getting too much donated clothing that’s dirty, out of style or worn out. Much of it has to be discarded, Seaman said. It’s not that students are ungrateful, but teens need to go to school dressed like other students so it won’t attract attention, she said.

She used to get calls from former students asking her to come to dinner, meet their spouses, their children. “These days I get calls, ‘Mary, I’m out of diapers and formula.’ Or, ‘Mary, I’ve got nothing.’ Or, ‘Mary, I’ve just been foreclosed on,’” Seaman said, tearing up. “It doesn’t end.”

She’s grateful to Lewiston City Hall workers. Last week, one high school student, in lieu of birthday gifts, did a food drive for STEP. “A lot of the food you see here on the shelves wasn’t here yesterday.”

Those acts are “awesome. What appears to be small gestures are huge. It’s what allows us to make a difference. It allows us to be the bigger Band-Aid.”

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said workers decided to help after she visited the program last February. “I was completely blown away, the need and the caring adults who run the program. After I dropped off our donations, I ran back to my car and sobbed in the parking lot. It was overwhelming.”

With the money collected, “we will purchase two $10 gift cards and one movie pass for each student in the program for Christmas,” Montejo said. The gift cards will be to Shaw’s, CVS, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts, all businesses within walking distance of the high school.

City Hall workers also will buy 20 battery alarm clocks, a specific request from the program. The items will help stock the “Store Next Door.”

To donate to STEP, Students Transitioning, Experiencing Progress, contact Mary Seaman at [email protected] or 795-4190, extension 2214.

Sun Journal photographer Russ Dillingham has started an online fundraising account to help the homeless students: http://www.gofundme.com/helpingHOMELESSteens for STEP.


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