Northern Lighthouse will get half a million to help homeless youth in Aroostook

2 weeks ago

MARS HILL, Maine — An Aroostook County counseling center will receive federal funding to house more homeless youth amid increasing demand.

The Northern Lighthouse Inc. offers mental and behavioral health services in Presque Isle, Mars Hill, Caribou and Bangor. The organization has been awarded $510,000 in congressionally directed federal spending for its youth facility in Mars Hill, U.S. Sen. Angus King announced Wednesday. 

Cities like Bangor, Lewiston and Portland offer multiple options for homeless youth, but the Safe Harbor Shelter is the only facility of its kind in Aroostook County. Northern Maine’s only other homeless shelter, the Sister Mary O’Donnell Shelter in Presque Isle, takes in adults and families, but not minors. With the federal funds, Safe Harbor will serve more kids.

The need is so great that the building had its first resident the day it opened in August 2022 and has been full ever since, said Blake Hatt, Northern Lighthouse chief operations officer.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Blake Hatt, chief operations officer for The Northern Lighthouse Inc., takes visitors on a tour through the Safe Harbor youth shelter in Mars Hill in 2022. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

“We had a young man walk into the shelter within three hours of opening its doors,” Hatt said. “Ever since then our shelter has been used regularly throughout the year. We have really seen an increase in the need for youth homeless services since we opened.”

The January 2023 Point in Time Count identified 4,258 homeless people in Maine, according to MaineHousing. Led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the survey collects data from volunteers on one night every January. But experts say the real numbers are higher

As homelessness has exploded in Maine, so have the numbers of kids and young adults without housing. During the 2022-23 school year, 4,400 Maine students were listed as homeless. Caribou’s homeless student population doubled when this school year started. 

The idea for Safe Harbor formed as staff saw rising numbers of young people either struggling with or at risk of homelessness, Hatt said. Nobody else was sheltering homeless youth and many were forced to find places to stay in southern Maine. 

The organization decided to end its mental and behavioral health residential program in Mars Hill and switch gears at the Mars Hill building.

Kids need a safe place to live, hot meals, education and life skills training, but more importantly they need to stay connected with familiar surroundings, Hatt said. Safe Harbor aims to keep kids in Aroostook County.

“If they’re struggling with homelessness, it doesn’t make sense for them to travel three to six hours downstate to get housed,” he said. “They have a greater chance of succeeding if we can keep them closer to their communities.”

Staff heard about the federal funds on Monday. They don’t know exactly when they’ll have the money in hand but are planning their next steps.

The first priority will be hiring another staff member so they can serve more kids.

A room at the Safe Harbor Shelter for youth in Mars Hill. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

Safe Harbor includes a four-bed emergency shelter for kids ages 10 to 17, and a transitional housing section, where young people ages 16 to 21 can stay for up to 18 months while they seek a stable living situation. 

The transitional unit opened in 2023 and served 20 youth during the year, Hatt said. The unit has six beds but can serve up to 16, so adding staff means adding more beds.

The Lighthouse will also use some of the money to buy a third van, which staff will use to drive the youth to community activities, work or other appointments. 

The money for the Mars Hill facility is part of $454 million awarded for 185 projects around the state from the fiscal year 2024 appropriations package.  

“The work The Northern Lighthouse is doing in Aroostook County has been life changing for so many young people,” King said in a statement. “This ripple effect of this funding will make a world of difference for the dedicated folks who run The Northern Lighthouse, as well as the youth they serve.”

Though The Lighthouse aims to serve Aroostook County youth, it has also helped some from beyond the region. Inquiries come in constantly from around the state, particularly when southern Maine facilities are full, Hatt said.  

The overriding goal is to provide what young people need so they can be successful. And there have been successes. A former resident was recently accepted into college and is now living in a dorm, Hatt said.

“This is huge, to be awarded this funding,” he said. “This is an amazing opportunity for our organization, but it’s really going to have a positive impact on the youth we are supporting.”