Auburn School Department’s homeless liaison Sasha Anastasoff, left, talks with a student on Dec. 22 about plans to attend college. Behind Anastasoff is a bookshelf full of snacks that students can come into her office at Edward Little High School and grab. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

It was early November last year when Sasha Anastasoff tallied the number of students in the Auburn school district confirmed to be homeless at some point since July of that year. In just the four-month period, she counted a total of 113, the same number of students the district had identified over the prior 12-month period.

The district’s numbers rise by the day. Even as Anastasoff, who is the McKinney-Vento liaison for the Auburn school district, tallied up the number of students, she knew she still had five more to identify that day, including one who was unaccompanied and living outdoors.

“I go through what I have during the day, and by the end of the day, there’s more waiting for tomorrow,” she said.

Last year’s 113 students were the most identified by the district in at least 10 years. Now, this school year, the Auburn school district is on track to identify well over double that.

Educators and homeless advocates are growing increasingly alarmed by a surge in the number of homeless youth, defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” While experts say most of the homeless youth are members of family units that are homeless, some say they are also seeing an increase in the number of homeless unaccompanied youth.

These counts are cumulative, meaning that even if a homeless student becomes housed, they continue to be designated as a homeless McKinney-Vento student until the end of the school year on June 30. On July 1, the count restarts.


While research indicates youth in urban and rural areas experience homelessness at a similar rate, Maine’s increase in homeless youth is especially striking in urban centers. Not just Auburn, but the Portland and Lewiston school districts, too, have identified more homeless students partway through this year than any previous school year in at least the last decade.

Other large school districts including Bangor, Oxford Hills, Biddeford and Augusta are on pace to match or exceed their highest counts in the same time period. Still, even some small districts are feeling the strain.

The Lisbon school district has identified 18 homeless students as of Feb. 1, double the total number of students in the last school year. Fryeburg-based Regional School Unit 72 has counted 13 homeless students, more than double its average from the last 10 years.


“Everywhere is struggling right now,” said state McKinney-Vento coordinator Amelia Lyons. “Everywhere.”

On Oct. 1, 2022, at least 2,186 Maine students were homeless, according to the Maine Department of Education. Half were living doubled-up in a home or apartment that was not their own, 33% were in hotels or motels, 11% were in shelters and 4% were in cars, in abandoned buildings or outside.


That’s one in 80 public students in the Maine, the highest recorded rate on an Oct. 1 date since 2014. Two-thirds of these students were also English-language learners.

McKinney-Vento data collected by Maine’s public schools is the most accurate in the state to evaluate youth homelessness, yet many advocates say the true extent of the problem remains unknown. “I don’t feel like those numbers ever justify what we’re working with,” said Jamie Caouette, director of The Store Next Door, a nonprofit organization under the Lewiston school district that assists homeless youth and their families.

Families sometimes remain quiet about their housing situation out of shame or concern their child will need to switch schools because they found temporary housing outside of their school district.

Yet, educators say it’s generally easier to identify younger students who are experiencing homelessness. Waterville school district McKinney-Vento liaison Peter Hallan said he tends to work with fewer high school students, not because homelessness is less common among older students, but because they’re less likely to seek help.

The National Center for Homeless Education states that about 17% of homeless youth in Maine are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.

According to multiple sources, homeless youth are far more likely to be chronically absent from school or even drop out. In 2022, just 59% of homeless students in the Class of 2022 graduated on time, according to the Maine Department of Education.


This value represents only students who were identified to be homeless during their senior year. A homeless student who dropped out of school as a sophomore but intended to graduate in 2022, for example, would not be included in this graduation rate.

Housing situations for homeless students may change by the day, making it difficult for schools to provide transportation. Even when homeless students stay outside of the district, some as far as an hour or more away, school districts are required by law to provide transportation.

Often, Anastasoff herself will drive a van to help transport McKinney-Vento students to and from school when needed.

Experts say rising rents and a statewide shortage of affordable housing has pushed more families into homelessness. Many become homeless because they can’t afford rent increases, while others are asked to leave for various reasons.

Few people recognize that homelessness can happen to anyone, Lyons said. Not just low-income families or those with substance abuse problems, “homelessness is happening to hardworking people who are doing the best they can,” she said, including those with full-time jobs.

Lyons also recalled a request from one teenager who had experienced homelessness: “When you do these presentations to schools, please tell them, please, she said, I wish my teachers knew that my mom was doing the best she could. She was working three jobs, and we still couldn’t find a stable place to live.”


There are many reasons families may become homeless, including situations outside their control. Once someone loses their housing, it can be nearly impossible for them to find a new place to live without help from case management services.

One Livermore Falls family became homeless after their house burned down in 2020. Unable to find a landlord willing to accept a Section 8 voucher and two small dogs, the family has spent the last three years living in a camper, a hotel and now a shelter.

Even as the family has moved across Androscoggin County, their teenage daughter has continued to attend Spruce Mountain High School.

Some families are able to find open rentals, but are unable to afford the upfront costs, which may include first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a security deposit. Because of this, one working father and his three children from Auburn moved no less than six times in 2021 and 2022, staying in campers, in hotels and with friends and family.

The Lewiston Housing Authority typically gives out 100 Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers per month, according to Executive Director Chris Kilmurry. However, most of these vouchers remain unused because individuals are unable to find a unit they can afford, or because landlords choose not to accept them.

Since the pandemic, need for housing has increased and the homeless population has grown dramatically, he said. With essentially no open housing units in the city, landlords can afford to be picky about who they rent to.


Negative public perception of those who use Section 8 vouchers can be particularly difficult for individuals to overcome. In reality, many who hold Section 8 vouchers are just as reliable as those who pay out of pocket, Kilmurry said.

Diane Townsend, executive director of the Waterville Housing Authority, said they have seen a growing number of people leaving units due to steep rent hikes as high as $400 all at once. As Maine’s housing market has boomed, some landlords have taken advantage, she said.

When families lose their housing, there are few places they can go. Many shelters are at their limit, and paying for hotels costs hundreds per week. Many move in with family or friends, sometimes resulting in yet another eviction because housing additional people can be a lease violation.

Bread of Life Ministries’ family shelter in Augusta is currently maxed out and has been “pretty full” since the pandemic, said Executive Director Victoria Abbott. Families are staying longer in the shelter than normal because they have been unable to find housing, she said, even with a Section 8 voucher.

“There’s nothing available in the city that a voucher will cover,” she said.

When an unused Section 8 voucher expires, families find themselves back where they started two years ago, she said.


In the last six months, she knows of four or five multi-unit buildings in the Augusta area that have been cleared of residents after a change of ownership.

In November, Rumford Group Homes Executive Director Melissa McEntee also told the Sun Journal that families are staying at their family shelters longer on average.

At the time, there were 30 people waiting for beds at one of their four shelters, describing their selection process as “basically a triage” as they try to prioritize those most in need.

Some families have given up finding a place to rent. When a veteran with two kids was evicted from his apartment after begging the landlord to make repairs, he was unable to afford a new place to live. Instead, he bought a bus and has put his money into converting it into a home.

In other cases, immigrant and asylum-seeking families are moving into the state, but have not been able to secure housing, as is the case for a family of five that moved to Lewiston from Mexico. For the last year, they’ve lived at a shelter in Lewiston.

Since Jan. 1, more than 550 asylum seekers have come to Portland alone, about 80 per week. City shelters are maxed out, so some stay in hotels, at churches or even in an overflow shelter located in a school gym.


“We are at a critical junction,” Mayor Kate Snyder said, according to the Portland Press Herald. “We are at a cliff, and we don’t have everything we need to respond to the needs of the community.”

Both Lewiston and Portland school staff confirmed that many of the homeless families they have identified recently are new Mainers.

The rise in school youth homeless numbers is also due in part to increasing awareness and identification, said Lyons. In recent years, the state has received extra federal money to educate school staff and provide more resources.

In the Auburn school district, for example, coordinating McKinney-Vento education was one of the assistant superintendent’s many roles, until December of 2021 when administrators decided to shift these responsibilities to a full-time position. Anastasoff, whose office is located in the high school, has been able to dedicate more time to building relationships with students and community agencies, which has helped connect her with other students and families experiencing homelessness.

“If you have a dedicated person there to identify (the homeless), we’re going to find more kiddos,” she said.

Even so, improved pathways for identification is just one piece of Auburn’s significant rise in homeless youth, according to Anastasoff.

Kennebec Journal staff writer Emily Duggan contributed reporting.

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