Orange County is second only to Dade County in the number of identified homeless children according to the 2012 Report by the Council on Homelessness. The county says that more than 5,900 children are living without a roof over their heads. In Osceola, there are 1,923 homeless children adding to the issue surrounding our communities, according to the Homelessness report. Nationally, the report indicates, families are the fastest growing segment of our homeless population, with an increase of over 30 percent in just three years.
When faced with such a life-altering situation, many students find it difficult to focus on their studies and may even drop out of school altogether. To prevent this from happening to local homeless students, the Orange and Osceola county school districts have implemented many programs to aid students and their families.
More than 2,200 students take advantage of Osceola’s Families in Transition program, which eliminates the barriers that may prevent homeless students from attending school. But these statistics only reflect the number of students who have been identified as homeless; many others have not.
“There are many [homeless students] that have lost their housing and are doubled up with other family members, friends or neighbors that go unidentified despite our best efforts,” says Christina Savino, the senior homeless liaison for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS).
Savino says that many factors, including underemployment, loss of housing and foreclosure, can cause these students and their families to become homeless.
Because may students may feel afraid or embarrassed about admitting to these issues, Orange and Osceola county employees are trained to look for certain signs, which indicate that a student is in need. In fact, every school in Orange County has a homeless liaison, whose job is ensure that homeless students are identified.
“The whole goal is identification,” says Kathy Marsh, the senior manager of media relations for OCPS. “Once we identify them, we can help them.”
Once a student is reported as homeless, teachers and other school employees can offer aid through one of the many programs offered by the local school systems.
One of those programs is Blessings in a Backpack, a national program that provides elementary-school students with a weekend’s supply of food on every Friday throughout the school year. In conjunction with Blessings in a Backpack, Orange County also offers the Love Pantry, in which a church will sponsor a particular school and provide it with food that can be given to children and families in need on any day of the week.
“If a child is identified as a person in need, a teacher or other school employee will go ahead and give them food from the pantry,” says Marsh.
Aside from these programs, homeless students also benefit from the McKinney-Vento Act, which enables students to continue their education at the school that they currently attend, even if they don’t have the transportation to do so.
“It allows a student to be bused to their school even if they’re not living near it,” says Marsh.
Despite these ongoing efforts to help students in need, Savino says that because the number of homeless students grows daily, it never seems to be enough. However, that doesn’t mean that community contributions aren’t helpful.
Marsh says that, although many people chose to donate new clothing, food or school supplies, monetary donations are preferred because they can be used to purchase gift cards. The gift cards are then given to students in need so that they and their families can purchase the necessities themselves.
“When you lose your complete ability to go to the store, it’s really important that the person can maintain some kind of integrity,” says Marsh.
By Marisa Ramiccio