ORLANDO, Fla. - Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) is reporting that thousands of students are experiencing homelessness this year.
When the school bell ends the day at Walker Middle School and students load the bus, home looks different at each stop.
"Many of the hotels that used to serve families visiting Walt Disney World are now sort of stay by the night," said Walker Middle School Principal Becky Watson. "Also, [we] have an increase in this area of people living in garages, in sheds, and things like that… in people's backyards. We have a family where someone pitches a tent in someone's backyard."
Principal Watson estimates about half of her middle school students are experiencing insecure housing.
The latest data from OCPS indicates reports of student homelessness district-wide are increasing to pre-pandemic levels.
"As we saw leases end, we saw a lot of families have to move into hotels," said Christine Cleveland, senior administrator of Homeless and Migrant Education for OCPS. "At this point in the year, we're over 3,000 students and that's where we ended last year."
In years before the pandemic, the district tracked student homelessness numbers between 6,000 and 7,000. These numbers include families living at a non-permanent address, like a vehicle, hotel or relative's home.
OCPS, like districts across the country, received a portion of the $800 million distributed through the American Rescue Plan specifically to support students experiencing homelessness. It’s helped the district fund after-hours outreach programs where teachers call and visit with families.
The increased reports also mean the district’s free clothing center, Kid’s Closet, is used more.
"It's sorted by sizes," said Cleveland, as she walked FOX 35 through the maze of shelves with bins of clothing inside of the center. "As you can see, our children's sizes are the ones that go the fastest. A lot of empty boxes waiting for donations."
Back at Walker Middle, Principal Watson says her fight to support homelessness is personal.
Watson experienced homelessness growing up. She says creating things like a calming room at her school where students can decompress is important to support students' mental health.
"It’s one of the things at Walker we have to do. You should as a teacher, but at Walker, we have to because they live under so much stress," Watson said.
If you're interested in donating Thanksgiving meals to students at Walker Middle School, you can contact the school at 407-858-3210.
If you're interested in donating to the district’s holiday donation drive, visit the link here.