Thursday, January 18, 2018
Human Interest

The State You're In: Near Orlando, rabid shoppers and homeless students so close, yet so far apart

Editor's note: In Orlando, just over a week ago, a crowd of 1,000 sneaker-hungry shoppers turned rowdy when they learned a shoe store would not release a limited edition sneaker called the Nike Air Foamposite One Galaxy. Many in the crowd were self-described "sneakerheads" who often buy two pairs of newly released models — as they say, "One to rock and one to stock." The shoes sell at retail for $220, but often are resold for 10 times that much. That's one slice of economic reality from Central Florida. Here's another. It's an Associated Press story from a town just 15 miles west of Orlando called Clermont, where the population of homeless students is nearly 20 times larger now than it was in 2005. One of the ways that school officials identify kids at risk is by what they wear. "They wear the same thing," says Sheri Hevener, a Clermont teacher. Make of this contrast what you will. They are both Floridian truths.


Zach Montgomery's dad plugs in the electric skillet and opens the cardboard box containing tonight's dinner.

Zach, a 17-year-old high school student in Clermont, a bucolic town outside Orlando, is used to dinners like this now. It's been six months since his family moved into the Palace motel.

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. Zach worries about their safety. Police arrested four people running a mobile meth lab near the motel the week before. At night, when the television is off, they hear things that scare them.

His father, Ronald Montgomery, chuckles in 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 canned chicken in the skillet as Zach watches.

"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.

• • •

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 Florida and echoes the rising numbers seen nationwide.

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.

"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.

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.

• • •

Zach wasn't one of Hevener's students. At first she wasn't sure why he had come to see her. "There were no visual signs," Hevener says. "But I knew he was there for one of two reasons."

Hevener, a business teacher, runs a pantry at the school for homeless students and others in need. Available to students are canned vegetables and boxed meals, as well as toiletries, notebooks, baby clothes and prom dresses.

Hevener didn't ask Zach why he needed the help. "I was just waiting for it to come out," she says. "And it did."

• • •

It was a July afternoon. Ronald Montgomery, a Disney bus driver, got home from work and found a foreclosure notice on the front door. All of their belongings had to be out within 24 hours. They'd been paying $950 in rent every month, but the landlord had not kept up with the mortgage.

He got the call at work the next morning. The sheriff was coming to collect the keys. Two movers were going over to help. In the matter of an hour and a half all of their furniture was on the front lawn.

And then it started to rain.

• • •

Some of the kids at East Ridge High School know about Zach's situation. But he doesn't volunteer much, and he doesn't bring friends home after school.

"I'm not really embarrassed," Zach says. "It's just such a small room. You can't really do anything except sit."

To escape, Zach immerses himself in video games he was able to save from the house.

Zach's favorite subject is math, and he's thinking about becoming an auto mechanic. But what he really likes is architecture. "I want to make buildings," he says. "Probably houses."

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