School can serve as anchor for
by Melissa Harris,
Orlando Sentinel, November 4, 2002
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Just about everything has changed for Deonte and Marquan Moore
since their mother moved them and their two sisters to Orlando
from South Carolina last year.
They came to town homeless, eventually found a home in their
grandparents' one-bedroom apartment on Holden Avenue and
quickly wound up back in a shelter when the family was
Just a year and a half in Central Florida, 8-year-old Deonte
and Marquan, 9, have been uprooted three times, switched
schools three times and acquired a new baby sister along the
way. Their only constant has been catching the school bus in
the mornings and riding back each afternoon.
The boys -- shy, quiet and prone to big grins -- are two faces
of a burgeoning problem.
Across Central Florida, schools are seeing a dramatic increase
in the number of homeless children they serve.
Orange County estimates that 900 homeless children are in
school this year -- living in shelters or motels, bunk-hopping
from friends to relatives, sometimes sleeping in vehicles.
That number, school officials say, has jumped 44 percent from
an average of 624 homeless children the system handled in the
2001-02 school year.
Orange County also estimates that there are 3,240 homeless
children living in the county, ranging from babies and
toddlers too young for classes to teenagers who dropped out of
"It's raining homeless people here," says Cindy Shaw, the
homeless coordinator at Robert E. Lee Middle School, who was
up until 1 a.m. Thursday trying to get a family placed in a
shelter. "In less than two days, I've had seven homeless
students come to my attention whom I didn't know about."
Getting a head count of homeless schoolchildren beyond Orange
County is difficult because other counties in Central Florida
are less systematic about tracking them or don't track them at
all. But officials at most school districts say they know the
numbers are growing rapidly.
Experts say the instability of being homeless leads to
depression, anxiety and stress, plus school transfers,
absences and low grades. And, they say, children fall up to
six months behind when they have to adjust to a new teacher,
new classmates and a new curriculum.
Almost half of all homeless children do not attend school on a
regular basis, missing 15 or more days in a three-month
period, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And
many students have difficulty enrolling because they lack
immunization records, an address or birth certificates.
When the Moore boys first moved to Orlando in the spring of
2001, they started classes at Fern Creek Elementary. When they
moved in with grandparents Ralph and Dorothy Bryant, they
moved to Pine Castle Elementary. Now, living at a shelter
operated by Orlando's Coalition for the Homeless, they are
back at Fern Creek.
Marquan, who takes special-education courses and tests at the
level of a 31/2-year-old, blossomed while at Pine Castle,
where he was under the supervision of a teacher and four
assistants, Ralph Bryant said.
"I wish all this switching wasn't necessary," he said. "I
would have loved to have kept Marquan" in the same school.
He's also concerned about the effect on Deonte. Once an
honor-roll student, Deonte now has trouble paying attention in
And where the Moore boys used to tell their friends about the
two pools at their grandparents' apartment complex, they now
keep quiet about where they live. They spend their
after-school hours in a program with about 40 other homeless
The number of children housed by the Coalition for the
Homeless, the region's largest shelter agency, has more than
doubled in one year from 68 last summer to 171 now -- a record
for the organization.
"When I first came to the coalition two years ago, seeing the
number of kids on campus horrified me," says Robert H. Brown,
the agency's president. "Now the line for dinner looks like a
long line of moms waiting to take their children to an
These families -- often headed by single mothers who are
destitute and have nowhere to turn -- are driving a growing
homeless population once dominated by lone men.
Families with children are the fastest-growing segment of the
nation's homeless population, according to the National
Coalition for the Homeless. At least 1.35 million children
live without permanent housing during a year's time,
representing 39 percent of the homeless population as a whole,
the national group says.
Marilyn Gordon, executive director of the Homeless Services
Network of Central Florida, says there are still school
districts that are reluctant to address these children's
"Many say, 'They don't live in a home, therefore they don't
live in our district, and we don't have to educate them,' "
Gordon says. "They see it as another burden until they get
grant money to help them."
Kay Carpenter, a veteran Orange County schoolteacher, says she
can't expect her four homeless seventh-graders at Lee Middle
to cook their family's favorite recipe or build a science
project because they can't afford the supplies.
"Believe it or not, the homeless children I teach are
well-cared for, groomed and loved," says Carpenter, who
usually has only one homeless child in class. "I'm amazed at
how adjusted they seem to be, but you know their lives must be
She tells the story of a seventh-grader she taught whose mom
lobbied a local shelter for weeks to cut a check to send him
on a field trip to Gatorland. On the day of the trip, the
"They don't have a lot of friends," says Carpenter, who never
expects a homeless child to remain in her class for more than
three months. "The families have to move on. It's their
Orange County's school system has a homeless coordinator in
each school to find emergency shelter, provide clothes and
supplies, and keep track of the population.
But Lake, Brevard, Osceola and Seminole counties don't keep
tabs on the number of homeless children they serve.
Jay Marshall, director of student services for Lake County
schools, says his district does not "knowingly have homeless
children enrolled." Instead, Lake refers its homeless families
to Anthony House, just across the Orange County line.
Brown, of the Coalition, disputes the contention that Lake
schools serve no homeless children.
"They would be the only county in the country that doesn't
have homeless children," Brown says. "Lake County doesn't
provide services. So homeless children go where the services
are, but that doesn't mean that they've solved the problem, or
that they don't have a responsibility to prevent it."
Lynn Clifton, spokeswoman for Brevard schools, admits that her
district's numbers are probably higher than they realize.
"Parents of students don't want to identify themselves as
being homeless," Clifton says. "They don't want the stigma,
and that means schools have a problem finding out who is
Although Seminole schools don't keep data, Sandra San Miguel,
the district's lead social worker, says she has seen a
dramatic increase in students living in motels or with
relatives during the past year.
Volusia County is educating 134 homeless students this fall,
and Polk County records show it has consistently enrolled
about 300 homeless students since 1998.
A key reason that homelessness is on the rise among
schoolchildren: Rents in Central Florida have climbed steadily
in recent years, making it nearly impossible for poor families
to find housing.
According to Gordon, of the Homeless Services Network, a
Central Florida resident earning minimum wage -- $5.15 an hour
-- must work 107 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom
apartment at the market rate of $714 per month.
Put another way, a person would have to earn $13.73 an hour in
a 40-hour-a-week job to afford that rent, if spending 30
percent of salary on rent, the federal standard.
A variety of social ills, such as domestic violence, substance
abuse and grinding poverty, also contribute to the problem.
Overwhelmed school officials scramble daily to find temporary
solutions to problems so that children don't drop out or have
to switch schools. Teachers say they do simple things to help
homeless children get through the day, such as providing
clothes and referring them to social-service agencies.
"You can't judge them," says Anne Ferguson, who runs Volusia
County's charter school for teen mothers. About one-third of
her students are homeless.
"They have to grow to trust you and realize you are a safe
person," she says. "If that happens, they're more apt to come
to school the next day."
In some cases, children don't become homeless because of
Michele's husband used to play Russian roulette with her. He
would tighten his left hand around the back of her neck and
raise his pistol to her head.
Finally, she mustered the nerve to run away, waking her
7-year-old daughter at 4 a.m. and bundling up what few
belongings she could carry.
During the past three years, the mother and daughter have
hopped from homeless shelter to apartment to homeless shelter
again, moving every time her husband finds them.
Michele, who asked that her last name not be used to protect
her child, says her daughter's only saving grace has been her
"I'm going to push it as far as I can for my daughter to stay
in the same school," she said. "It's the only stability we
Letitia Stein, Dave Weber, Leslie Postal and Denise-Marie
Balona contributed to this report. Melissa Harris can be
reached at 407-420-6269 or