SEBRING — In the Highlands County school district, 354 students are considered to be homeless, according to Debbie Wood, federal programs coordinator for Highlands County School Board.

Last year, the county had 652 homeless students, Wood said.

Wood reported a poverty rate of 82.5 percent in the schools. That means that approximately 9,124 students out of 11,059 were receiving free or reduced lunch.

Families are struggling to find affordable housing, and some families don’t have enough money saved to cover the traditional first and last month’s rent plus a deposit.

“We have one transitional housing in the county,” Wood said. “At times we have people to refer to the transitional housing, but there is not room.

“In bigger counties they may have more homeless shelters and more resources,” she said. “We do refer people to our social workers for the School Board of Highlands County and to the Homeless Coalition when there are extreme cases.”

School district personnel realize that homelessness impacts students, and the county has taken steps to address the issue.

“For our Title IX grant, the SBHC has written in funds for school supplies and book bags,” Wood said. “If there is a need for transportation to the school of origin, we accommodate those students.

“If a senior is considered homeless in the senior year, we can write a verification letter that can be taken to the Homeless Coalition and then eventually taken to South Florida State College or possibly another college,” Wood said. “This helps them to have some of their fees waived.”

Families often live with other families, but sometimes they don’t have enough clothes for their children. The district collects clothing for students by holding clothing drives for gently used clean clothes and jackets. For extreme cases, a homeless advocate works with social workers to help the students.

A few years ago, Lake Placid High School held a jeans drive to collect jeans for older students, Wood said. Some clubs have also donated school supplies to homeless children.

In one extreme case, a family was staying with another family, Wood reported. When the family was finally able to get a place of their own, they did not have anything.

“The principal and school staff members, district social workers, migrant recruiter, sheriff’s department, and Champion for Children Foundation came together to help this family with their needs of appliances, beds and linens,” Wood said.

“The Champion for Children Foundation prioritizes the safety and well-being of our local kids,” Executive Director Carissa Marine said. “Depending on the situation of the family, we are able to financially assist with temporary shelter or housing payment, as well as connecting families to additional resources and support.

“For example, after a natural disaster or emergency outside their control, if there is a serious injury or medical diagnosis affecting the well-being of the child or family, or there is neglect or abuse within the home, the Champion for Children Foundation is honored to assist families in maintaining or regaining safe and secure housing,” Marine said.

“We are blessed to partner with incredible local agencies such as the New Testament Mission, Hope Haven Transitional Housing, and the domestic violence shelter who provide safe, temporary shelter,” Marine said. “We are also extremely grateful to our community’s churches and businesses who partner with the Foundation to assist families with housing needs.”

“In the past, the Student Services Department has been given some monetary donations,” Wood said. “These funds are used by the social workers to provide the essentials whenever possible for homeless students and other needy children.”

To donate funds or supplies to homeless students, contact SBHC Homeless Advocate Noelia Martinez at 863-471-5313.

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