The Bangor School Department is trying to boost its support for homeless students this fall, as the department expects to identify more students without permanent housing as the school year continues.
A team of social workers, counselors, graduation coaches and others are trying to connect students with help more quickly, so students who need it can leave school each weekend with a bag of food to sustain them until Monday and receive mental health care at a newly opened in-school clinic.
The stepped-up support and efforts to set up more students with help come as Bangor grapples with a homeless population that has grown throughout the pandemic. Some 170 people were sleeping outside at 11 encampments in the city as of last month, a number that doesn’t include the numbers of people staying at shelters or in hotel rooms with the help of rental assistance.
The Bangor School Department identified 70 students who had experienced homelessness during the last school year, an increase from the previous two years.
So far this school year, the department has identified 30 students experiencing homelessness or in unstable housing, according to Brian Bannen, the principal of Fourteenth Street School, who oversees services for the school department’s homeless student population.
That number will likely grow as more students are identified in the coming months, he said.
Students grappling with homelessness, food insecurity or mental health problems are typically identified by their teachers, who see them every day, said Sheri Thompson, a Bangor High School social worker. When teachers suspect a student may need help, they’ll alert school personnel such as social workers or guidance counselors.
To streamline that process this year, the school department has created an online form where teachers can enter any concerns they have about a student, and the appropriate and available staff member can connect with the student as soon as possible, Thompson said.
“What we’re hoping is that the pathway of getting information to the right people is as efficient as possible to be proactive in meeting students’ needs and catching things before they snowball into larger issues that disrupt their ability to be in a classroom setting,” Thompson said.
“There have been times where a student may have been having suicidal thoughts that they weren’t telling anybody. But, because someone noticed they weren’t themselves, we were able to have a conversation.”
While some students may tell a trusted teacher or staff member they need help, others are reluctant to disclose that information due to the stigma around homelessness, food insecurity or mental health challenges, Bannen said. When students aren’t forthcoming about those challenges, teachers look out for signs a student might need help.
The most common signs teachers may look for are whether a student is complaining of hunger or falling asleep during class, has poor hygiene, or is chronically absent, said Angela Domina, a Bangor High School English teacher, graduation coach and coordinator of the high school’s Student Support Team.
Once a student is identified, a team of social workers, guidance counselors, graduation coaches and school administrators connect with the student and guardians to find out what a student needs.
It can be difficult to broach the subject with families, Bannen said, as they might be ashamed of their situation or untrusting of school staff.
“Sometimes they’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble, so we want them to know there’s nothing wrong with the situation and we have a lot of resources available to help,” Bannen said. “We ask them if they have needs and what their living situation is currently. Making sure that we’re as clear as possible about the resources and support we can provide is always the goal.”
Social workers can provide students with free clothing, toiletries and school supplies, and even athletic equipment they might need to participate in a sport. Many of those supplies are donated, but the school department has federal funding through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to buy some of them.
Bangor High School also has a food pantry, and students in the Service Club assemble bags of shelf-stable food for students and their families to eat over the weekend when they don’t have access to school-provided breakfast and lunch, said Misty Conrath, a science teacher who oversees the pantry.
Five students at the high school regularly received bags of food as of late September, though that number usually fluctuates as needs change, Conrath said.
While food and clothing are necessary, Thompson said students experiencing homelessness most often need mental health care, which the Penobscot Community Health Care clinic in the high school offers.
The in-school clinic, which opened in January, has proven to be a valuable resource, Thompson said, because it makes it easier for students in need to receive help.
When a student needs mental health care, they can access help from the in-school clinic that day instead of sitting on a provider’s wait list for weeks, said Picabo Mower, a Bangor High School social worker.
Mower said her larger goal is to make sure students — especially those in difficult life situations — are safe, happy and striving to succeed in a way that’s meaningful to them.
“Success is up to interpretation,” Mower said. “Maybe they didn’t graduate, but if they’re breathing and healthier, I count that as success. Helping them see they can expect something of themselves despite what life has given them is why we do what we do. We want them to graduate — we’re a school — but we want them to grow as people, too.”