LEWISTON — A Lewiston-based program that helps homeless young people get off the street, stay in school and reconnect with their families was in the spotlight Friday, thanks to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins, along with a top official in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, toured two of the buildings and learned about the programs offered by New Beginnings, a nonprofit that is operating the only 24-hour emergency shelter for teens in Maine.

Ending homelessness in America by 2020 is a top goal of Obama’s administration, but it has long been on Collins’ radar screen. She has more recently turned her attention to the problem of youth homelessness.

New Beginnings, which recently celebrated a 35-year anniversary, and its programs were being put in the spotlight by Collins in hopes that some of its programs could be replicated nationally.

Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, is a top-tier Democrat on the short list of potential vice presidential candidates in 2016.

But Castro and Collins put the focus Friday on the young people New Beginnings serves.

“I told some of the young people they really are role models for other folks their age and even younger folks coming up,” Castro said during a brief news conference following the tours.

“I hope that you all see — I think that you all see — that you have here and in the community a lot of people who love you and who believe in you and who want you to reach all of your dreams — and that’s what we wish you — that you reach those dreams,” Castro said.

Collins, who chairs the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, is working to secure reauthorization of the “Runaway and Homeless Youth Act,” which would provide $167 million to help finance facilities such as New Beginnings.

During a short tour of the New Beginnings emergency shelter on Main Street, Collins and Castro spoke with teens and young people to learn more about how the programming and support has helped them turn their lives around.

“It has been truly inspiring to learn about the wonderful work that New Beginnings is doing for homeless youth in this area; they clearly are changing lives,” Collins said. “But it’s the young people themselves who have had the strength, the courage and the determination to turn their lives around.”

Collins said she was honored to have Castro with her and noted, based on the best research she and her staff could do, that he was the first HUD secretary to ever visit Maine.

Bob Rowe, executive director of New Beginnings, said the funding provided by the “Runaway and Homeless Youth Act” and HUD is essential to their operations in Lewiston, Augusta and Farmington.

“A lot of the youth you see here are 18, 19, 20 years old, and they are  just now starting to transition from childhood services to adult, and having HUD housing available, low-income and income-based housing available is critical to their not ending up back on the street,” Rowe said.

Hailey, 17, said she was put in foster care at 9, but the services and housing she received from New Beginnings made a big difference in her life by helping her not only with shelter, but in developing basic life skills.

“Basically, if I didn’t have here, I would be living on a park bench,” she told Collins.

Instead, she’s graduating from high school this week and soon will be moving into a program that will help her with work skills and securing housing on her own.

Her story, like many of the homeless teens in the region, is a tough one, including more than 25 placements in foster homes in her young life. In a letter she wrote and shared with Collins and Castro, she detailed her experience.

“I have slept wherever I could,” Hailey wrote. “With friends, family, shelters and even places not meant to be inhabited. I have been neglected in the sense of food security, basic mental, physical and dental health and (not) having a home.”

Hailey said during that experience, she met many others like herself.

“We’re in this predicament due to lack of foster homes and placements, especially because of our age and our past,” she wrote. “What I can’t stress enough is the fact we are still children. Minors who have no home or sense of security in really anything.”

Collins said later that Hailey’s story highlights why, as a federal lawmaker and policy-maker, she is so focused on helping. 

Collins praised the partnerships New Beginnings has created with other agencies, local government — including the police — and schools and private donors, such as Lewiston’s Geiger family, which helped fund the renovation of a new drop-in center for homeless youth on College Street. The center helps provide meals, education, work training and counseling programs for homeless and at-risk children and teens.

“I think that should tell those of you who have gone through these programs that people really care about you,” Collins told a group gathered at the drop-in center following her tour of the building. “They want you to succeed and they want you to be safe.”

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