Six students from the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council (LYAC) spoke about the harsh realities of youth homelessness in Lewiston to students and Brunswick community members in Hubbard Conference Room West last Monday night.
Lewiston High School (LHS) senior Kon Maiwan and the chairman of LYAC began the presentation by holding half a cup of water in front of the crowd.
“If you hold it here for a minute, not a problem,” Maiwan said. “If you hold it for an hour, it starts to be a problem. If you hold it for a day, then it becomes unbearable. That’s how burdens in life work.”
The presentation, sponsored by Bowdoin’s McKeen Center for the Common Good and Upward Bound, included a short documentary produced by LYAC, “Homeless Youth in Lewiston.” The film first debuted on January 17, and local and state government officials, including Governor Paul LePage, attended the premiere.
Interview footage from the film highlights Lewiston-based non-profit New Beginnings and LHS’s Students Transitioning, Experiencing Progress (STEP)program, which both work to eliminate youth homelessness in the Lewiston area.
The LYAC was chartered in 2001 by the Lewiston City Council.
New Beginnings is one of the primary organizations LYAC supports. In the documentary, Kat Bourgoff and Kendra Sprague (who was also part of the LYAC group presenting on Monday) each described how they became homeless, the difficulties of that life, and how support from New Beginnings made them optimistic for the future.
Bob Rowe, executive director of New Beginnings, explains in the documentary that New Beginnings takes youth from the ages of 12 through 21 in unstable, out-of-home situations and provide a safe environment for them to become independent.
STEP has two full-time employees that work with an estimated 53 homeless students at LHS. Many of these students come from families with histories of drug and alcohol addiction or have experienced physical abuse. STEP helps the students focus on their academic futures.
“How can you worry about school when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from?” Jamie Caouette, homeless academic liaison at the STEP program, remarks in the documentary.
Raising public awareness about youth homelessness is the main goal of LYAC.
“We took this project because we wanted the people of Lewiston to realize that something is happening in our town,” said Maiwan. “Adults weren’t doing anything about it, so we decided to.”
Fielding questions from the audience, Sprague discussed the most effective ways to reach out-of-home youth, who are often unaware of the available resources.
“The first step would be to make it so [homelessness] isn’t so stereotypical,” she said. “Homeless means dirty.”
“The second step is to make sure people know what resources are out there,” Sprague said.
The documentary explains that any high school students fear the stigma attached to their situation, and won’t seek help out of embarrassment and shame.
The ultimate goal of LYAC’s presentations is to educate the local community on how to help address the problem of youth homelessness.
“One of the biggest issues for youth in Lewiston-Auburn is transportation. Just getting anywhere is difficult,” said Sprague. “If you have a car, volunteer to help the youth get around.”
New Beginnings and STEP readily accept donations of school supplies, hygiene products, clothes and other basic necessities. Additionally, New Beginnings collects donations online at newbeginmaine.org.
“If they had more funding, they’d be able to do so well,” said Sprague. “They know what to do with those resources.”