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Editorial: Student homelessness needs to be a top state and national priority

In Maine, the long winter months deliver an endless barrage of cold, bitter weather. Sometimes, the snow, wind and ice can be hard to endure for even the five-minute walk to class. But for some students, the struggle in winter weather continues into the night, as thousands of college students across the country suffer from homelessness. 

In 2019, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia conducted a study of close to 1.7 million college students across the country. From that survey, half of the participants reported that due to financial strain, they were experiencing housing insecurity, paying only part of their rent or sleeping in their cars or at their friend’s houses. The same study found that 17% of students experienced homelessness in the previous year, and unfortunately, the trend of homeless college students has been increasing. 

A 2020 study by the National Center for Homeless Education found that since the 2015-16 school year, the number of recorded homeless students has increased by 15%. USA Today reports that increasing tuition rates, insufficient financial aid support, lack of affordable housing and costs of food, gas and child care are the combination of factors that college students face. Not to mention that on top of these challenges, the stigma around homelessness often prevents students from reaching out for help when they need it. 

Maine college students are not exempt from this problem either. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness keeps tabs on homelessness statistics for all 50 states. They estimate that in 2019, Maine had 125 homeless college-age students. Expanding the age bracket to include high school and elementary school children reveals that just under 2,500 Maine public school students experienced homelessness at least one point in 2019. This included those living in shelters, hotels or motels or unsheltered. 

Unfortunately for these Maine students, access to homeless shelters or other resources are often scarce in Maine’s rural landscape. In an article with the Portland Press Herald, the Homeless Liaison for Maine’s SAD 61, states: “There’s shelters here and there, but nothing in our district area. And shelters fill up quick. We have an instance a couple years ago where we had to bus the kids to Portland because they were living in a teen shelter. We’re in the middle of nowhere.” 

Many Maine schools are located in “the middle of nowhere,” causing homeless students who are stationed in shelters to travel long distances to go to their schools, just so they have a place to stay. Maine law ensures any student, including homeless students, a right to an education in a school of their choice, usually meaning a school in the same location they lived before becoming homeless, or any public school that students living in the same area are eligible to attend. 

Homelessness resources are so few and far between in Maine that students and children are being held in juvenile detention, such as the South Portland Facility; not because they are a danger to others, but because there is no other place for them to go. 

For University of Maine students, the Bangor area provides numerous shelters and resources for a variety of issues. The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and PCHC Hope House provide a space to sleep and refresh, while Partners for Peace offers resources and a safe space for survivors of domestic violence. Children under the age of 18 can find shelter at Shaw House, also in the Bangor Area. Further, UMaine’s Black Bear Exchange initiative offers a food pantry open to all UMaine students, and their immediate families, to relieve some pressures on students. These resources are great, but not every college or school has resources such as these close by.  

Tackling Maine’s and the country’s student homelessness issue is a large and costly effort. The system in place needs to be strengthened and expanded to include rural areas to protect students everywhere, and ensure access to resources for all families and individuals. Students of all ages are under enough stress as it is, including completing school, homework, working jobs to provide for themselves and sometimes their families. Every student in Maine, and the country, deserves a safe, warm place to stay with a roof over their head.

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