Homeless runs rampant in wake of economic hard times

CHRIS GERBASI | Staff Writer

They may be living in motels or cars, or at campgrounds or grandma’s house.
School-age children can fit the definition of “homeless” in a variety of ways, and the Lake County School District is providing services to a significant number of them: about 2,500 students on any given day.
The majority of those students have roofs over their heads, but are sharing other people’s homes.
“They’re living with somebody else because they no longer have a home of their own, or they can’t find a home of their own because of financial hardship,” said Kristin McCall, district liaison for the homeless.
The district figure typically hovers around 2,400 to 2,600, or about 6 percent of the 41,000 student population.
A three-year state grant that supports the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has helped the district, including a team of 12 social workers, facilitate services for homeless students. The district has received $320,000 the past three years, said Jan Tobias, director of student services.
McCall said the McKinney-Vento Act has a broad definition for homeless. Still, by any terms, 2,500 is a large number.
“If you look at the foreclosure numbers in Lake County, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched,” McCall said.
McCall said some students are living in cars and perhaps tents, but those numbers are difficult to determine.
“Some are in RV parks, quite a few are in motels,” she said. “I’ve heard that in the south end of the county, there may be some in tents, but parents are not wanting that to be known.
“We have 12 social workers, and if we find out a student is living in a car, we do the best we can to get them out. A motel is better than a car,” McCall said.
The school district also arranges for transportation, by bus or from a teacher or friend, so homeless students can continue to attend the same school if they have been displaced.
“If you move them during the school year, that can be detrimental to their learning,” McCall said.
Marion County Schools is experiencing similar problems with students living in RVs and campers in the Ocala National Forest. That district has gone as far as to set up bus stops in the forest in an effort to keep kids in school, where they may be getting their only hot meals, said Capt. Gail Lazenby of The Villages Fire Department. Lazenby is involved in the Backpack Program, which provides personal hygiene items to those students.
New Beginnings, a faith-based not-for-profit group in South Lake County, also helps homeless families with programs such as transitional housing, food, clothing, professional counseling, life and job skills training, and job placement assistance. Executive director Steve Smith says residential programs currently serve 17 students, and an outreach program provides meals to about 30 more children on Saturdays.
Smith says the number of homeless students in the district continues to rise. He was told that of about 45 new students entering Lake Minneola High School in January, about half were defined as homeless.
“I’m in the industry and I’m still shocked at the numbers I’ve heard. The numbers I’m seeing are staggering,” Smith said. “People keep thinking that nationally things are getting better, but I’m not sure that applies in Lake County.”
Lake School District policy defines homeless children as individuals who lack a fixed and adequate nighttime residence, including those who are sharing housing of other people, or living in places such as motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, shelters, parks, cars or any number of places not ordinarily used for sleeping accommodations.
Across the state, nearly 57,000 students were defined as homeless for 2010-2011, about a 16 percent increase over the previous year, according to the state Department of Education. About 70 percent of those students were sharing housing as a result of losing their housing or economic hardship.
In the 2010-2011 count by school district, Lake had 2,992 homeless students; Orange, 3,887; Volusia, 2,016; Osceola, 1,923; Marion, 1,911; and Seminole, 1,697. In 2007-2008, Lake County Schools identified 606 children as homeless.
Increased reporting and more accurate counts, as well as economic hardship, have contributed to the rise, said Chris Patton, district communications officer.
“There’s a lot of economic upheaval in the county, and that’s probably attributed to additional students in that category,” Patton said. “Mostly, it’s the way we’ve accounted for them under the homeless definition. They’re not living on the streets, they’re just not living in a house, or they may be living with grandparents, families, friends.”
The counts include any student categorized as homeless who attended school for even a day throughout the year.
“A lot of people come to Lake County and think they’ll get a job,” McCall said. “They get here, and the jobs are not here and they’re not staying.”
Tobias said the district plans to bid during the next round of competitive grants for state aid. Last year’s grant funding to the district was increased because of the rising number of homeless students.
“Our numbers continue to be relatively high as districts go, and we want to continue to support those services until things turn around,” Tobias said.
McCall said efforts like arranging transportation at least helps maintain some normalcy for students “while parents work it out.”
“It assists them, the kids are happy, and it’s best for their education,” she said.