Survey data indicates the number of Orange County students living in unstable housing circumstances increased by 3,542 since last year.
The number of homeless students attending Orange County Public Schools has increased by about 58% since the 2016-17 school year.
According to OCPS spokeswoman Lorena Arias, OCPS identified 6,134 homeless students during the 2016-2017 school year, but survey estimates rose to 9,676 during the 2017-18 school year — an increase of 3,542.
It’s suspected the increase was partially caused by new students who lost their homes in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and relocated to Central Florida, said Christina Savino, a senior administrator with the district’s Homeless Education Program.
OCPS identifies homeless students via a survey included in the enrollment packet for all students that parents fill out. Savino believes there might be even more students living in unstable housing circumstances.
“What we do during that registration process is assess their housing circumstances through a form called the Student Residency Questionnaire,” Savino said. “And the questionnaire identifies the cause of their housing arrangement, and we’re able to gather whether they were affected by the hurricane or not. ... We identified just over 3,800 students (who) were homeless due to a hurricane. And that would make sense when you look at our numbers for the past couple years versus last year. And those are just the ones we’ve identified — there might be more we don’t know of.”
Students are considered homeless for the purpose of the survey if they are living in an emergency or transitional shelter; living in shared housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship; living in cars, parks, campgrounds, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations; or living in a hotel or motel.
According to Arias, about 1,400 students of the 9,676 are from the West Learning Community of Orange County.
All students identified as homeless have access to supplemental services and are automatically enrolled in the free school-meal program, Savino said. Homeless students who live two or more miles away from their school also receive free bus rides, even if they move from one residence to another or happen to move outside of the school’s attendance zone or county lines.
“Services … include, but are not limited to, immediate enrollment into school, provisions for school stability, including school-of-origin transportation, free school meals and referrals for additional services,” Arias said. “Through limited grant funding, OCPS also assists with fees related to school participation and academic success, such as field trips, extracurricular activities and school supplies. OCPS also has a Kids’ Closet, (which is) accessible to all school social workers to meet student-clothing needs.”
OCPS’ supplemental services are funded using a combination of state and federal grants from the Title I and Title IX program. The majority of the funds are used to pay district support staff and gas expenses, Savino said.
Despite the increase in homeless students, the district is operating on existing resources and money provided by previous grants, as additional funding to compensate for the increase has yet to come in, she added.
For more information on the district’s Homeless Education Program or to request assistance, visit homeless.ocps.net or call (407) 317-3485.