Homelessness among students in Lee and Charlotte counties has been monitored every since Hurricane Andrew ripped through Florida in 1992. The Great Recession is now rivaling that hurricane is one of the great causes of student homelessness.
"Definitely there has been more student homelessness with the recession," said Lorraine Allen, director of the state homeless education program for the Florida Department of Education.
Matty Young, director of the Lee County Homeless Education Program under the Florida Department of Education, said the problem has become "pretty big." Every school must have a homeless liaison but the staffing is inadequate to handle the task, official say.
"We've identified more than 1,000 students this year," said Young. "And we have just two social workers and a tutor to work with these students."
Lee County number show more than a 300 percent increase from the 275 homeless students just seven years ago.
Charlotte County's homeless student problem is a bit less acute with just 441 homeless students now compared with 223 in 2002-03.
"With the economy so bad our numbers are going up," said Lucy Garner, who handles Charlotte County's homeless students. "That represents approximately 217 families. Some students live on their own. Many of them go to Lemon Bay High School (which services Boca Grande). Youngsters have become pregnant. As many as 75 students don't have a parent under the roof."
Statewide, in the 2002-2003 school year, 6,201 students were classified as homeless. By 2009-2010, Florida students who had no place to go home to after school totaled 49,104 - an increase of nearly 700 percent in just seven years.
In addition to storms wiping out homes and foreclosures taking them from students, other causes of homelessness identified by the state Department of Education include long-term poverty, lack of work for the parents, mental illness and domestic violence.
A homeless student is defined by the feds as one who lacks a permanent, night-time residence. A child regularly being bounced among relatives or family friends would qualify.
"It's not necessarily living in a shelter," Young said.
With four storm-free seasons in a row, Florida's biggest contributor to student homelessness today is the shriveled economy. Many parents, who formerly made a good living in real estate and construction, are working for less pay in other industries now or drawing unemployment.
Florida posted an 11.9 percent unemployment rate for October, and it was even higher in Lee and Charlotte counties at 12.9 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively. State economists project unemployment will remain in the double digits until the second quarter of 2012.
"You know, we have some really difficult economic times now, the mortgage crisis and people losing their jobs," said Lorraine Allen, director of the state homeless education program for the Florida Department of Education.
The homeless student problem challenges schools facing deep budget cuts. Stimulus money helped but is running out, said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Schools devote extra attention to homeless students because they're extremely at-risk.
"From the student perspective, losing your housing and experiencing homelessness, it puts all of child development at-risk," said Duffield. "If you don't have a regular place to stay, it's really hard to focus in the classroom on learning. You may not know what's going to happen when you get out of school."
Garner said homeless students are not a disruptive force.
"They withdraw because of depression," Garner said. "Not anger. Depression and sadness. No matter what the parents had done, say it was an alcoholic family, they are very loyal to the parents. Sometimes the mom doesn't know the dad. These are more chronic types. The have been in poverty for some time. You see all types of situations."
Grades tend to suffer because students must work after school to eat and earn shelter, Garner said.
"Sometimes they cannot really concentrate," Garner said. "Their mind is on what is going to happen to them. They are usually six months behind."
Schools can become a beacon of hope, however, as the most stable part of a homeless student's life.
"Schools really become one of the most important parts of their safety net," Duffield said.
Homeless students are enrolled in the free lunch program and given aid such as clothing and transportation assistance. If a student winds up living with a relative or friend outside of the original school district, the child can still be transported to the home school.
Allen said schools give as much support as they can to help homeless students overcome academic obstacles by offering tutoring and providing school supplies. School officials cannot set up specific academic programs for homeless students by order of federal law to prevent them from being stigmatized. That leaves the students on their own once the closing bell rings.
"Everybody wants to be better," Garner said. "Homeless students struggle to do better for themselves."