'Couch surfing' common for teens with no place to call homeLocal coalition looks for ways to end the trend
Belfast — Dorothy Rego knows what it's like to spend her days wondering where she will sleep that night.
Rego, a student at Belfast Community Outreach in Education (BCOPE), said her life is much more stable these days, but only after overcoming many hurdles along the way.
Rego said she resided with her grandmother since she was very young because she could not live with her family for legal reasons. That arrangement worked out well for a while, she said, but it all changed just as she was about to begin her high school career and her grandmother's health began to decline.
Rego said she started staying with various friends, which she described as "not always a good living situation." What Rego experienced in the few years that followed is commonly known as "couch surfing."
Rego met her current boyfriend and the two of them briefly lived with his mother until Rego said that situation grew to be more stressful than she could handle at that time. In addition to she and her boyfriend, Rego said her boyfriend's sister was also staying there with her children, and Rego would often try to help out the family by watching the children.
The two moved out of there after a brief stint, and for a time they lived at a hunting camp that belonged to one of her relatives. The place was small, she said, and lacked comforts such as running water.
For a time, Rego said she dropped out of school because she was also working on a small farm, but she opted to return to school this year so she could graduate.
Rego and her boyfriend are now living with Rego's mom, and she said she still checks in on her grandmother regularly.
"Things are a lot better now, I feel like I'm kind of back on my feet," she said.
Rego said she and her boyfriend have been saving up to put a down payment on a home of their own in the near future, and she hopes it will mark the end of her experience with homelessness, once and for all.
Finding a way home
Rego's story is one of many, and it's a problem that a local coalition consisting of educators, police officers, juvenile justice personnel and counselors have been working to address.
BCOPE Director Gary Skigen and Jessica Falconer, a grant writer at BCOPE, said due to several complications the group has encountered in recent years, getting Waldo County Safe Homes for Teens off the ground has proved challenging.
The issue of teen homelessness has remained on the local radar screen since the 1990s, and at one point during that decade, Skigen said, former BCOPE employee Ron Cowan produced a video in which he interviewed youths who lacked a place to call home.
Fast forward a few years, and that's when Waldo County Safe Homes for Teens was born, an organization Skigen said drew a good deal of interest from the community in it's fledgling stages.
"Then we kind of lost heart, because we couldn't attract any volunteers to provide homes," said Skigen.
The initial goal of the organization was to offer safe and stable home environments for homeless teens who want to stay in school. Skigen said the plan was to collect a list of local residents who volunteered to open their homes to these youths, but finding people who were willing to do so turned out to be more challenging than anyone anticipated.
Some who considered taking on the host home role stopped short of doing so for a youth they did not know, and others had concerns that host families would lack protection from liabilities that might arise from taking in a child who is not served by the state's foster care system.
But Falconer said she contacted the state Department of Health and Human Services to see if youths in the program might be eligible to enter the foster care system, but learned the department is hesitant to bring children into the system who are 14 years old or older.
With that being the case, Falconer and Skigen say they understand the concerns of those potential host families.
"It's unfortunate that we have to use words like 'liability,' but I feel it's fair for people to be concerned about their lives and their households," she said.
The program was designed to allow possible host families to set certain rules for a youth who might come to stay with them — perhaps one family does not allow smoking in their home, while another family expects children in the house to complete household or outdoor chores.
Armed with the knowledge of a family's preference, Skigen said, the organization would then go back to the youth in question to see if those were rules they were willing to follow. In theory, if all went well, the youth would then have a safe place to call home until they graduate from high school.
Skigen said even with the screening process, through which potential host families also meet the youth who might be staying with them, the organization has yet to find anyone willing to serve as a safe home.
For those in the community concerned that the organization might be aiding teens who simply do not wish to follow the rules their parents impose for them, Skigen said those are not the ones Waldo County Safe Homes for Teens aims to assist.
"A youth who's homeless is homeless for a reason," said Skigen.
And those reasons are many. Sometimes it happens after their families are displaced and forced to move away, while the teen opts to remain in the community where they attend school. Sometimes, a parent re-marries or moves in a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and personalities don't mix. Sometimes the reasons are more obvious — everything from ongoing sexual or physical abuse in the home to drug activity.
Skigen said on one occasion he questioned a boy who had come to school smelling of marijuana. When Skigen asked him if he had been using drugs, the boy offered an unexpected response.
"He said, 'It's not me, my stepdad's a drug dealer,'" Skigen said.
BCOPE juniors Marissa Allen and Ariel Woodward have both had first-hand experiences with teen homelessness.
"I lived with her for a while," said Woodward of Allen.
BCOPE junior Kayla Noble said she finds it much easier to focus on her school work since she left a less-than-ideal living situation to move in with her boyfriend and a few other friends about a month ago. Noble said the students at BCOPE are like a big family and they all look out for each other. The same is true, she said, of the BCOPE staff.
"The teachers here actually care about the students," said Noble, adding the school purchased a pair of winter boots for her this winter after learning she was in need of them. "If we didn't have BCOPE, no one would be there for us."
Skigen said while it's nice to see the students supporting each other, he worries it is one of the reasons that some teens who struggle with homelessness fly unnoticed, under the radar of caring adults who may be able to help.
"A lot of students don't get identified because they manage," said Skigen.
And the problem is not unique to rural Maine.
According to information posted at the National Conference of State Legislatures website, the National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night there are about 1.3 million homeless youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, with friends or with strangers.
NRS data also suggested homeless youth are at a higher risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health disabilities, substance abuse and death, and stated that an estimated 5,000 unaccompanied youth die each year as a result of assault, illness or suicide.
Skigen and Falconer are continuing to work with a local accountant and the Internal Revenue Service in the quest to obtain official nonprofit status for the organization, which Falconer said would open up opportunities to go after bigger grants and by extension, shift the focus of the group into a new direction.
The new idea on the table is to explore option for developing a possible long-term shelter that has a sustainability component, meaning youths who stay would also help care for the property, complete household chores and work with an on-site staff.
"It would be best if it were close to town, where a lot of these kids don't have transportation," said Skigen.
Skigen also said the mission might include a transition fund to support the youths to find suitable housing after they graduate, but it will take a lot of money to make all of those initiatives a reality.
Even so, Skigen said the effort will move onward because teen homelessness is not going away.
"Nobody in this community that we've talked to thinks this isn't a great idea," said Skigen. "It's just finding a way to make it happen."
Anyone interested in learning more about Waldo County Safe Homes for Teens can contact Skigen at BCOPE at 338-0261.
207-338-3333 ext. 109
Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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