LAKELAND, Fla. — The Homeless Coalition of Polk County is working to draw attention to the area’s growing homeless population.
“We have a large homeless population. We have currently four shelters in Polk County. We don’t have enough shelters,” said Bridget Engleman, Executive Director Homeless Coalition of Polk County.
Currently the Homeless Coalition of Polk County said there are 600 people experiencing homelessness in the county, but many people are unaccounted for.
“Not as accurate because of COVID so a lot of shelters are still under the CDC mandate of having space. So, we can't really count those individuals,” Engleman said.
The misconception is that only people sleeping on the park bench are considered homeless, but homelessness comes in many forms, including school-aged children.
“For one reason or another, they lost housing and ended up living with friends or family. A lot of people might look at that and think, well is that really homelessness and it sure is,” said Ben Ruch, Polk County Public Schools Homeless Liaison.
Ruch said 3,583 students are classified as homeless. That’s 360 more students than last year. Ruch said the surge in housing costs is increasingly affecting struggling families.
“We’re getting more calls this year than ever from families who are working. They have income but when their lease ended the rent was increased so much, they couldn’t stay. They couldn’t renew the lease,” Ruch said.
The HEARTH Project and Polk County Public Schools ensure that children experiencing homelessness achieve academic success. They provide clothing, tutoring, medical assistance, and more. Other solutions, including more affordable housing, will be discussed at the Humanity, Housing, and Homelessness: A Solutions Summit, happening in Lakeland Thursday night.
“Once you get an individual into a house then they can be a little bit more relaxed and not in their survivor mode. Then they can work on the other services they actually need, mental health, substance abuse,” Engleman said.