Home­less stu­dents in area num­ber nearly 15,000

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich Staff Writer

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.”

ksan­tich@or­lan­dosen­tinel.com or 407-420-5503

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