Rise In Homeless Students Stifles Florida Town | Clermont , Florida | NewsOK
Zach Montgomery’s dad plugs in the electric skillet and opens the cardboard box containing tonight’s dinner.
The liquid from the canned chicken sizzles as it hits the skillet.
Zach, a 17-year-old high school student in Clermont, Florida, a bucolic town of rolling hills and palm trees outside Orlando, is used to dinners like this now. It’s been six months since his family moved into the The Palace motel. Six months since he had a freezer large enough to hold ice cream or a quiet place to do homework.
Zach says he worries, about everything. Getting to school is tough. When his dad’s paycheck dries up a few days early, there isn’t money for gas. Sometimes, his mom says, he just doesn’t want to go. Zach worries about their safety. Police arrested four people running a mobile meth lab near the motel the week before. There are sights and smells Zach had never come across before he lived here. At night, when the television is off, they hear things that scare them.
His father, Ronald Montgomery, tall and spirited, sneaks in a chuckle, in spite or disbelief, as he talks about the last year. The lost house. His wife’s job. The illnesses. He pours in the rice and sprinkles the cheese powder on the chicken in the skillet as Zach looks on.
“It does make you feel like less of a person, or you’re a failure, because you’re not providing everything that you’ve been providing in the past,” he says.
“You’ve only got that door,” Zach says, looking at the chain lock and deadbolt separating their room and two beds from the outside world. “I’m thinking someone’s going to come in, just come in and do whatever they think they can do.”
Homeless. Zach isn’t sure that’s the word he’d used to describe their situation.
“I do but don’t,” the stocky, soft-spoken boy says. “If we were in a car I’d say we were more homeless.
“I’d like to have a house,” he continues. “But at least I have a roof.”
Here in Lake County the number of homeless students has skyrocketed, from 122 in 2005 to more than 2,600 this school year. It’s the largest increase in hard hit Florida and echoes the rising numbers seen nationwide as well. Some of those children are living with their parents in a friend’s or relative’s house. Others are in shelters or motels like Zach. Some with nowhere else to turn take refuge in the woods.
While the nation’s unemployment rate has declined to 8.3 percent, in rural Lake County it’s still a bruising 9.9 percent. Clermont, the county’s largest town, was once predominantly an agricultural community, but in recent years, farms were sold and land cleared for new developments. Then came the recession.
Roads paved in anticipation of new homes and families lead to empty lots. Restaurants that dotted the sparse suburban landscape like Perkin’s and Dairy Queen have shuttered their doors. Jobs here are scarce.
“We had a lot of people in the construction field, and that has pretty much come to a standstill,” says Kristin McCall, the Lake County School District’s homeless liaison. “I’m not sure if they’ve all been able to get back to work. And if they are, I don’t think financially it’s what they were at before.”
Teachers like Sheri Hevener started seeing signs of the distress, and in some cases, homelessness, in her students. They seemed lethargic. More started falling behind on their homework.