Number of homeless children increases in central Florida



OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - The Sanchez family will not have to walk the long hallways inside the America's Best hotel on U.S. 192 in Kissimmee -- the place they've been raising their two children in a tiny room -- much longer.

"I try to take them out to the park all the time, because all of us are on top of each other," said Andre Sanchez. "It's just crazy."

After Andre and Jasmine Sanchez lost their jobs in Miami, they moved to Kissimmee. The plan was to stay in a hotel a few weeks, but that was almost a year ago.

"He (Andre) went out for like three weeks in a row. He walked everywhere to find a job, because the car we came with broke down," said Jasmine Sanchez.

But now, with help from the Homeless Services Network, the Sanchez family is moving into an apartment, and both parents recently found jobs.

It's one success story, but there's a long way to go for many people living along what was a once-thriving tourist corridor. Recently, the familiar stretch of 192 has become a refuge for Osceola's homeless families.

The America's Best hotel has 202 rooms. It's one of the larger lodgings along 192, and at one point, 60 percent of its rooms were rented out to homeless families.

The Osceola County School District now has 60 bus stops along the once-popular tourist strip near Disney's doorstep, and new numbers from the state Department of Education show there are 2,825 homeless students living in Osceola County.

The numbers for 2011-2012 are even higher in other central Florida counties. Orange County has 4,844 homeless students and Lake County has more than 3,500.

Meanwhile, there were 2,228 homeless students in Volusia County, 1,865 in Seminole and 1,350 in Brevard with no permanent address.

"A homeless child is five times more likely to be a homeless adult later in life," said Cathy Jackson, who heads the Homeless Services Network.

Jackson maintains that the ultimate solution is attracting new industries and companies to the region.

Local leaders, according to Jackson, need to be "expanding the number of higher-paying jobs that folks can be trained for either short- or long-term and then earn enough to have self-sufficiency and stable housing."

But until the economy improves, Jackson's agency has been using grant money to help families transition into stable housing. This time, the Homeless Services Network's efforts will help a child like the Sanchezes' young daughter know life outside of a hotel room for the first time.

"I can't wait to see her running around in a house, you know?" said Jasmine Sanchez.