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Solutions for the 3,700-plus Polk County public school students classified as homeless — living in shelters, budget motels, dangerously compromised dwellings or sofa-surfing with friends and family — will be among the topics discussed Thursday at a Lakeland forum on homelessness and affordable housing.

“This year we are seeing an increase — we’ve identified 400 or more homeless students than we had last year,” said Ben Ruch of the Hearth Project, which serves as the homeless liaison for Polk County Public Schools. 

Ruch will be among panelists at a Humanity, Housing and Homelessness: A Solutions Summit, 6-8 p.m. this Thursday at Catapult, 502 E Main St., sponsored by the Homeless Coalition of Polk County, The Salvation Army, Polk for Recovery, Talbot House Ministries and LkldNow.

The forum will also be live-streamed on LkldNow’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Those interested in attending in person can register online.

Also on the panel with Ruch will be Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, Homeless Coalition of Polk County Executive Director Bridget Engleman; Peace River Center Domestic Violence Primary Prevention Advocate Megan Petersen; and Talbot House Ministries Executive Director Dr. Brenda Reddout.

The panel will be moderated by veteran broadcaster Andrea Oliver, and will include firsthand experience about the challenges facing the homeless from Barbara Shenandoah.

The summit will include a question-and-answer exchange and post-panel breakout sessions. The goal of the program is “to discuss the current scope of the homelessness problem, the resources that currently exist within Polk County, and the opportunities and challenges to ensuring that homelessness is brief and non-recurring in our community,” said LkldNow Community Engagement Director Trinity Laurino.

Ruch said it is frustrating how “eyes glaze over” when community advocates attempt to draw attention to the area’s homeless population.

“in their minds, they are thinking that single man or woman on that street corner,” he said, but many don’t realize how surging housing costs are increasingly affecting children in struggling families.

“We are getting more and more calls from families that are working. Their leases expired, rents increased so much they end up having to leave. They end up moving in with friends and families” or living in tenuously stressful, often dangerous, circumstances.

“We’ve identified students living in budget hotels” such those along U.S. 92 in Lakeland “and, of course, we do have them in shelters” operated by Lighthouse Ministries, in Lake Wales Cares Center and Peace River Center.

It is a hidden, yet pervasive issue, not just in Polk County but across the state and nation.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize this, but it is federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, that every school district in the nation have a homeless liaison. That is a position in every public school district in the nation,” Ruch said, noting Polk County Public Schools actually has “a staff of six to serve the students, pre-K through 12th grade, experiencing homelessness in our district.”

Citing Florida Atlantic University’s August 2021 analysis that found housing in the Lakeland area is the “most overvalued” in Florida and 21st most overvalued in the United States, Ruch said the hidden cost of homelessness among children and, especially teenagers in high school, is all that is lost to disruption and instability at a formative time in their lives.

“The unintended consequences” of the housing market has created a “perfect storm” that perpetuates one of the most common traits among homeless students’ parents — many themselves grew up intermittently homeless “and do not have a high school education,” he said.

“The whole goal of our program is to provide the support needed for students and families so, no matter what is they are struggling with, we can try to ensure (children) have what they need” to stay in school and graduate “and  end the cycle that they are in,” Ruch said.


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