Bangor schools served about 70 students experiencing homelessness this past year, a marked increase from the previous two years, as the city as a whole has grappled with a growing population of people without permanent housing.
The 70 students experiencing homelessness at some point during the past school year represented a return to pre-pandemic levels for the Bangor School Department, said Mary Snow School principal Brian Bannen, who oversees services for the department’s homeless student population.
The increase meant the school department had more students to help out with basic needs such as clothing, school supplies and food. And that help is carrying over into the summer now that the school year has ended.
While the number of homeless students represents about 2 percent of the Bangor School Department’s student body of roughly 3,500, Bannen said the true number of homeless students in Bangor could be higher. This is because administrators only know students are experiencing homelessness if they or their families tell them, and students often aren’t willing to disclose that.
“You try, in the kindest way possible, to broach that conversation because families are embarrassed or they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble,” Bannen said. “We want to have that conversation with them in a way that’s not scary and doesn’t feel punitive.”
Teachers and other school staff are often the ones who tell school social workers a student may be homeless if they notice students coming to school wearing the same clothes day after day, or don’t have supplies they need to succeed in school, Bannen said.
In Maine, students are considered homeless if they lack a “fixed, regular and adequate” nighttime residence, according to the Maine Department of Education. This means students living in hotels, transitional housing, shelters, cars, abandoned buildings or with other families due to a loss of housing — referred to as “doubled up” — are all considered homeless.
Renee Perron, a social worker at Bangor High School, said gaining a family’s trust so she can help out is often the hardest part of her job.
“There’s a stigma, and they don’t want to tell us that they’re homeless,” she said.
Some parents fear their children will be taken away if they reveal their housing situation, but that’s not the case, Perron said.
“It breaks my heart when a family feels they have to be ashamed of their living situation,” said Christina Babin, the school department’s director of pupil services.
Perron said she works to prevent any student in need from feeling self-conscious because they don’t have the same basic materials other students do.
She’s able to provide students with clothing, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products, sports equipment and food, funded through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. She also drives them to health care appointments and has done laundry for students if needed.
“My job as a school social worker is to help them access their education,” Perron said. “I tell them, ‘Anything that’s getting in the way of you focusing on school is my job.’ It’s hard to see kids that are suffering and not able to access their education, but I’m the one who gets to help them.”
The services schools provide don’t stop when the school year ends. Perron said social workers continue checking in with families to connect them with any resources they might need. Schools also continue providing free meals students would receive in school, which families can pick up at a variety of locations in Bangor.
The department also connected “as many students as we could” with summer camps and other programming funded by COVID-19 relief and other funds, Babin said.
Last year, Bangor schools identified 52 students who were experiencing homelessness at some point during the academic year, Bannen said. This was about level with the 2019-20 academic year, when 57 Bangor students were homeless at some point during the year.
This year’s number of homeless students sprang back to pre-pandemic levels, Bannen said. During the 2018-19 school year, the Bangor School Department identified 73 homeless students.
Maine had an estimated 2,552 homeless students as of January 2020, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Of those, 105 were unsheltered, 535 were in shelters, 284 were in hotels or motels, and 1,628 were doubled up.
When the Bangor School Department learns that a student is homeless, that student generally remains in Bangor schools for the entire school year, Bannen said. This is important so students can maintain some semblance of stability, especially if they’ve built relationships with their teachers and peers.
“It’s all about what a student is comfortable with,” Bannen said. “If a student is already going through a traumatic situation, you don’t want to add to that, especially if the traumatic situation is the reason for homelessness.”
If a homeless student moves to Brewer during the year, for example, they’ll remain enrolled in their Bangor school, and Bangor and Brewer share the cost of transporting the student to school, Bannen said.
The following year, the student would enroll in school in Brewer.