Homeless students in area number nearly 15,000
Mimi is 16, the oldest of six kids, all living in a single room at an Orlando homeless shelter with their mom. Between high school and a fast-food job, she is up most weekdays until midnight. Then she sets three alarms each morning — at 4, 4:30 and 4:40 — to ensure she catches the 5:37 a.m. bus.
“I always jumped from school to school every couple of months,” she said. “It was stressful, but I got used to it. This was just how we live.”
These days, it’s how a lot of Central Florida kids live.
According to newly released research, nearly 15,000 students in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties were identified as homeless in the 2015-16 school year — nearly four times the number a decade earlier, and a higher percent than the rest of the state.
Homeless students were more than three times as likely to be
“I always jumped from school to school every couple of months. It was stressful, but I got used to it. This was just how we live.”
Mimi, 16, who lives with her family at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission
truant — having at least 15 unexcused absences in a 90-day period — than their more well-to-do counterparts. And they were nearly three times as likely to be suspended.
They were also only half as likely to pass assessment tests in English, math and science.
Even compared with students who live in poverty but are not homeless, the students whose families stay in shelters, cars, doubled up with another family or in extended-stay hotels fared significantly worse, the study found.
“We often compare statistics about attendance or academic achievement to our housed students, but this was the first time we’ve seen the comparison to students [in poverty],” said Christina Savino, Orange County Public Schools senior administrator for homeless and migrant education. “Although there are a lot of similarities between the two, that lack of a stable home still really makes a difference.”
In one sense, Mimi is an exception. Though the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, where she has lived since March, has been the longest home she can recall, her grades are mostly As and Bs. But the situation still takes its toll. It’s why she asked not to have her last name used.
“I’m not much of an open person,” she said. “Until this year, I didn’t really have friends.”
Before moving into the Rescue Mission, she missed about two months of school each year. Eleven percent of Central Florida homeless students have 15 or more unexcused absences within a 90-day period. Only 3 percent to 4 percent of their classmates who aren’t homeless miss that much school, the report found.
The research was conducted by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida and Miami Homes for All, a South Florida nonprofit. It was funded by JPMorgan Chase, which last week announced a $5 million donation for nonprofit housing solutions in Central Florida.
“Safe, stable housing lays a foundation for children’s success in school,” said Mel Martinez, chairman of the Southeast U.S. and Latin America for JPMorgan Chase, noting that statewide the number of homeless students had topped 72,600. “This is unacceptable. We need to shine a light on this issue and work collectively to ... give every child in this state the opportunity to succeed.”
Already, local districts offer a range of services to support homeless kids. Under federal law, they’re required to provide transportation to keep students at the same school when their families move, and sometimes they even cross county lines to do so. They also offer bus passes and gas cards so kids can stay on campus for after-school tutoring, they connect children and their parents to local social-service agencies, and they have private donations that help with school fees, extracurricular activities and even food.
But the report — a year in the making — is the most detailed evidence to date of the impact the homeless students still face.
“A lot of these families cycle in and out of homelessness, so the kids never really have the stability that they need to learn,” said Shelley Lauten, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. “Overall, we still don’t have an efficient mechanism to help families get back on their feet and stay there.”
While some districts have seen a drop in student homelessness last year — after the research period ended — the number of kids living in hotels and motels has continued to climb, school officials said. In Orange and Osceola counties, a quarter of homeless students live in hotels — the highest percentage in the state.
“Most communities may know of one or two hotels or motels where people are living longterm, but not a whole concentration of hotels like you have along the Highway 192 corridor,” said report co-author Anne Ray. “The other thing we see in the Orlando area is just how extreme the lack of affordable housing is.”
In the study, only 24 percent to 27 percent of homeless students passed assessment tests, while 40 percent to 48 percent of other students did.
And 16 percent were suspended at least once, compared with 11 percent of housed students in poverty and 6 percent of other students.
Mimi admits to struggling on tests because it’s hard for her to sit still. But she has managed to stay out of trouble even as many of her homeless friends haven’t.
“I just want people to understand that a lot of kids go through things that make it so they can’t really focus,” she said, “because their mind is on the real world, not on school.”
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