Lewiston’s Tree Street Initiative
Lewiston’s Tree Street Initiative
June 8, 2019
Using a place-based approach, the John T. Gorman Foundation works to help community members transform Lewiston’s Tree Street neighborhood
At the John T. Gorman Foundation, we are proud to have a statewide mission of improving the lives of Maine’s young children, older youth, families, and seniors. It is work that draws us, happily, out of our office in Portland to all corners of the state.
But over the years, the routes to certain locations have become especially well worn. They are the places we have returned over and over for several reasons. Their needs are great, not just for one population we work with, but for several. They have local organizations with the commitment, capacity, and leadership needed to make a meaningful impact. And they are places where the community’s willingness to collaborate has allowed us to form broad partnerships in which we can align our efforts toward shared goals and coordinate our investments to help achieve them.
The City of Lewiston—and, in particular, its Tree Street neighborhood—is one of these places. What started in 2012 as a Foundation investment to improve elementary reading results has grown to become a comprehensive, community-driven initiative that touches on early education, at-risk youth, family economic security, housing, and more. Its transformative goal is ambitious but attainable: turning one of the poorest areas of the state into a safe, lead-free community where all can thrive.
Potential and Challenges of Lewiston’s Tree Street Neighborhood
Lewiston’s downtown includes a thirty-block residential section often referred to as the “Tree Streets.” This densely populated neighborhood has a population of 10,904 in 4,832 households.
Walk down the streets of this neighborhood and you’ll hear French, Portuguese and Somali—evidence of the immigrant families both past and present who have called it home. You’ll see children playing in the street, as this neighborhood has the densest population of children under the age of five in the entire state. And you’ll meet many people who are absolutely dedicated to their community.
The potential of this place is plain to see, but so are its challenges. The Tree Street neighborhood is one of the most disadvantaged communities in the state of Maine. It represents three of the seven census tracts in Maine qualifying as “extreme poverty tracts,” meaning that more than 40 percent of its residents live in poverty.
Moreover, the children who live in the century-old apartment buildings that dominate the area suffer from the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the state. The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated, since even a small amount of lead in the blood—caused by ingesting lead paint chips or breathing dust—can wreak havoc on a young child’s developing brain, causing issues with learning, behavior and long-term health.
Sadly, the Tree Street neighborhood’s high rates of poverty and lead poisoning are reflected in the school performance data. As is often the case in communities with high rates of lead exposure, the schools serving the Tree Street children have the highest allocation of special education funding, and significant expulsion and suspension rates.
The poor-performing schools are what originally drew the Foundation’s attention and investment to Lewiston. But shortly after the John T. Gorman Foundation began supporting Lewiston Public Schools’ early literacy efforts, we met with both the State Centers for Disease Control and their Lewiston affiliate, Healthy Androscoggin, to discuss the persistently high childhood lead level rates in Lewiston. The data they presented was disturbing: the Tree Street neighborhood represented “ground zero” for childhood lead poisoning in Maine. It was clear that that ignoring this serious issue was not an option— and many Tree Street partners agreed.
New Initiatives Launched to Prevent Lead Poisoning and Assist Families
One of the first actions the Foundation took was providing support to help Healthy Androscoggin raise neighborhood awareness about the presence of lead and the danger of exposure. One element of the campaign enlisted mothers in the refugee community to educate their neighbors about the potential hazards to their children.
Next, the Foundation broadened the conversation about lead impacts on the Tree Street neighborhood to include business and community leaders. Widening public interest in the issue spurred several positive actions:
- The establishment of a local Lewiston/Auburn Green and Healthy Homes Collaborative—with representatives from the city, local housing authorities, Bates College, two area hospitals, and community action programs, among others— all with the goal of reducing lead and asthma rates among Lewiston and Auburn children.
- Receiving two $3.4 million federal grants for lead-hazard reduction in 4 years.
- The creation of a new city taskforce on lead, new demolition guidelines to prevent the spread of lead dust, and the inclusion of lead reduction in the city’s comprehensive plan.
At the same time, the Foundation approached Pine Tree Legal and Community Clinical Services at St. Mary’s Hospital about creating a medical-legal partnership—a proven strategy for improving children’s health—at a health clinic in the Tree Street neighborhood.
The Pine Tree Legal and Community Clinical Services partnership is focused on increasing efforts among medical professionals to screen and identify children with lead poisoning and to refer their families to legal services when warranted. The partnership also provides outreach to community partners and advocacy for families navigating the various systems designed to aid them, such as educational supports, medical interventions, and lead paint enforcement protection programs. This successful project is now being replicated in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood (another high need community) through a new partnership between Pine Tree Legal and Greater Portland Health.
In addition to funding Pine Tree Legal’s Lead Hazard Project, the Foundation also provided an outreach and education grant to the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition (MAHC) to work on housing issues impacting families and seniors. MAHC’s work focused, in part, on educating policy makers about the irreversible impact lead poisoning has on a child’s growth and development. MAHC efforts led to Maine becoming the first state in the nation to lower the elevated blood level necessary to conduct a full lead investigation of a child’s home.
Connecting the Dots for an Integrated Approach
While advancing these lead-related initiatives, the Foundation continued to fund efforts at Lewiston schools for summer learning, reading improvement, and restorative practices to prevent suspensions and expulsions. It also supported local organizations working on other fronts, including:
- Programs for homeless youth at New Beginnings
- A successful initiative at Tree Street Youth to offer a community-based alternative to the juvenile justice system
- The Take 2 workforce development program to help vulnerable youth get their high school equivalency and job skills
- A Lewiston Workforce Initiative to train adults for construction and other trades, then match them with local employers
Although these investments in Lewiston have helped foster quality programs that are having a positive impact on Lewiston’s residents, in 2016 the Foundation sought ways to better coordinate its efforts, convening a series of grantee gatherings in Lewiston that were attended by a wide range of stakeholders. The group identified housing, employment, and education as three issues facing Lewiston they could coalesce around, each taking on specific strategies based on their individual missions and strengths. Since then, the Foundation has devoted staff time, technical assistance, and funding to help the Tree Street community meet these shared goals.
Most recently, the Foundation supported the City of Lewiston’s successful effort to secure a $1.3 million Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) CHOICE Neighborhood planning grant to accelerate the revitalization effort in its Tree Street neighborhood. The grant allows the City, Community Concepts, Inc. and their partners at Healthy Neighborhoods to create a redevelopment plan with Tree Street residents that will address the stated goals of improving educational outcomes, creating successful career paths, and building safe housing.
A Roadmap for Place-Based Work
The Foundation remains committed to the Tree Street neighborhood’s ongoing transformation. We believe the ambitious goals of this project can be achieved because of Lewiston’s community members, who have repeatedly shown the requisite leadership, capacity, and commitment needed to affect lasting change. We are proud to work alongside them and use what we and they have learned to broaden and refine our place-based strategies in Lewiston and in other Maine communities that show the same potential.
- Through investments to develop alternatives to suspension at Longley and Montello elementary schools in 2016 and 2017, both schools saw fewer in- and out-of-school suspensions, and Montello school saw an increase in their NWEA reading assessment scores.
- In 2015, the Foundation supported the Tree Street Reporting Center, a program that serves youth at risk of becoming involved in, being diverted from, or under supervision of the juvenile justice system and strives to lower the arrest rates of youth in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Since launching, the program has served 42 youth; 35 of whom have had prior contact with the juvenile corrections system. As a result of this program more youth are employed and attending school and fewer youth are re-entering the juvenile justice system. In addition, during the first 18 months of the Reporting Center’s operation, juvenile arrests in Lewiston decreased by 35%.
- Lead screening rates in Lewiston for children age 12-24 months increased from 50% in 2012 to 70% in 2016.
- Pine Tree Legal referred 74 families – representing approximately 200 children – for lead screenings and opened 233 cases that involved lead paint identification, special education identification and services, and housing issues. Of these 233 cases, favorable outcomes were achieved ninety-seven percent of the time.
- After a highly competitive process, Lewiston, Maine—along with Los Angeles, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—became one of only three award recipients of a $1.3 million CHOICE Neighborhood planning and action grant.
- Foundation funding and technical assistance has helped the city leverage $10.7 million in federal and state grants.
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