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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Student homelessness in our own backyard by Lorraine Glowczak

The story goes something like this: “You look tired today, are you doing okay?”, the elementary school teacher asked her student. Not yet having learned the shame of homelessness, the young child answered honestly, “We slept in our car at the Walmart parking lot last night and I didn’t sleep very well.” The teacher discovers that the student’s family had lost their home and had no place to stay.

This conversation happened recently. It did not occur, however, in some far-off place in a large inner-city school. It took place in our own back yard - right here at RSU14.

Homelessness is not an issue reserved for other, larger communities; it is something that the
Windham/Raymond communities experience and must rise to defeat.

The Maine Department of Education and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines student homelessness as an individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including children and youth:
    http://www.pongratzlaw.com/
  • Sharing housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate housing
  • Living in emergency or transitional housing
  • Abandoned in hospitals
  • Having a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, regular sleeping accommodations
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations
Although the rate of homelessness is a deep concern in the Windham and Raymond areas, Doug Daigle, Social Worker at Windham High School and the homeless liaison for the school district, points out that it is not as bad as other communities. However, stigmas still exist about this often misunderstood and unfortunate experience. 

“There is a lot of misconceptions of teenage homelessness,” said Daigle. “This is not necessarily a choice on their part. They often face a variety of issues that is beyond their control. Issues such as abuse from family members or substance abuse that persists in their home, not to mention domestic abuse. In some cases, one parent has to leave the situation and the child is left behind.”

Differing beliefs and values also play a role between parents and their teenage children regarding sexual orientation. “There are circumstances when a teenager comes out about their sexual orientation, and the parent who disagrees, will not allow them to live in the family home any longer,” Daigle explained.

Whatever the circumstance, teenage homelessness includes couch surfing as well as other nonstable conditions. This puts the student in survival mode. “Students who are faced with such circumstances do not know how long they will stay in one place,” said Daigle. “They are in survival mode - wondering when they will get their next meal and how they will pay for it.”

When one is in survival mode, the act of taking care of the basic day-to-day needs such as sleeping and eating becomes an urgent issue. This lends little time and attention to school and homework, let alone normal creative outlets and teenage adventures that prepares a student for a successful adult life.

As a result, the school district works diligently to provide the care the student desperately needs. “Our goal is to maintain stability in their lives,” Daigle explained. “Sometimes, we are their only support system.”

RSU14 does have one advantage that some districts may not have. As is the custom of our small-town communities, efforts to help those in such circumstances are being met with generous, kind, and outstanding local citizens who have mastered the art of dedication to provide relief for those who face difficulties.

“We live in a great community,” began Daigle. “Community members have organized a number of ways to provide stability and hope among the students who need it most.”

Daigle shared many stories where the community has come together to provide supplies, food, support and a gateway to a future filled with hope. “With the help of the community and the district, one student who persevered through her circumstances was able to go to college,” Daigle reports. “She was also able to study abroad and was offered a job in Europe.”

In another story, one student had a choral audition in an out-of-state college but had no way to get there. “A group of individuals purchased a bus ticket for that student,” Daigle explained. “That student was accepted into the program and is still in college.”

There are many other stories where both the community and the district provide the support system to our youth. Students can shower and wash clothes at school, toiletries are available in the student services office as well as a district clothing closet. 

There is also a Feeding Frenzy event with the intent of collecting soups, cereals, can goods, pastas, etc. For donations or more information, contact Marlene Bicknell, Food Frenzy organizer at mbicknell@rsu14.org.

The Backpack Program and the Village Funds that ensure that the insecure children and teenagers of Windham and Raymond are nourished and well fed are still taking donations. To donate, contact Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro at scowens-gasbarro@rsu14.org or Marge Govoni at mgovoni@rsu14.org. Cowens-Gasbarro can be reached by phone at 892-1800, ext. 2029 and Govoni at 892-7192.

There are many ways one can contribute to the success of the RSU14 students who face homelessness. For more information or to contribute, contact Daigle at 207-892-1810.
Daigle stated it best that may offer hope to those who may presently find themselves in a situation such as this; “We are a very supportive community who deeply care about our kids and our families.”



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