Blake Hatt, chief operations officer for The Northern Lighthouse Inc., takes visitors on a tour through the Safe Harbor youth shelter in Mars Hill on July 13, 2022. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

MARS HILL, Maine — Teen shelter services in Aroostook County will be expanding when Northern Lighthouse Inc. opens its transitional housing for youths ages 16-21 on Jan. 3.

Northern Lighthouse has received more than 20 calls from youths experiencing homelessness who were seeking help since the shelter opened in August.

The Family and Youth Services Bureau grant of around $250,000 was awarded to Northern Lighthouse Inc. to aid the Basic Center Program shelter for kids 17 and under, and to open a Transitional Living Program open to youths ages 16-21.

The Transitional Living Program will address the gaps for youths experiencing homelessness, so the youth shelter won’t have to turn away young residents that don’t meet the age requirement. Northern Lighthouse also refers youths to the Shaw House in Bangor as well as New Beginnings and Preble Street in Portland.

This will be the only transitional housing program for youths north of Bangor.

“We have been researching as a community provider to meet the unmet needs. Obviously through COVID people were losing employment, losing houses, losing apartments,” said Lindsay Boutot, Program Manager for Safe Harbor and the Transitional Living Program. “The homeless issues were more prominent, so we looked into some funding streams that might help support that.”

The Transitional Living Program will allow teens and young adults to stay for 18 months, and perhaps longer if permanent housing suddenly falls through.The program provides case management, independent life skills, emotional regulation groups, counseling and employee support with referrals to get jobs in the area.

The Children’s Residential Home will be closing on Dec. 16 and will be replaced by Transitional Living in the same building. The Basic Center Program at Safe Harbor and Transitional Living Program are separated by different entrances.

Transitional Living is set up for youths to independently house and support themselves through the programs at the youth homeless shelter. The youth homeless shelter had four beds for youths experiencing homelessness, but the Transitional Living expansion would allow them to open up 14 more beds in the shelter.

Education is a priority when youths enter the homeless shelter so they can be successful as young adults, according to Northern Lighthouse. The organization prioritizes traditional and alternative educational settings for youths experiencing homelessness to get them back in the classroom to get their GED or high school diploma.

Youths experiencing homelessness are at risk for a higher dropout rate in school and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, which doesn’t require youths to return to their possibly dangerous living situations.

“We’re in an isolated area of Aroostook County and I don’t think people understand what homelessness really means to teens,” Boutot said. “A lot of teens are couch surfing, so they’re not staying home in the typical family format anymore. They’re staying with friends.”

The youth shelter typically provides resources to one or two residents per night, but has had to refer young adults over the age of 18 to resources such as the Aroostook County Action Program and Homeless Services of Aroostook, according to Boutot.

Northern Lighthouse will be tracking more calls and youths experiencing homelessness as they come in 2023.