Published February 29, 2012
CLERMONT, Fla. – Zach Montgomery's dad plugs in the electric skillet and opens the box containing tonight's dinner.
The canned chicken sizzles as it hits the skillet.
Zach, a 17-year-old high school student in Clermont is used to dinners like this now. It's been six months since his family moved into The Palace motel. Six months since he had a freezer large enough to hold ice cream or a quiet place to do homework.
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.
His father, Ronald Montgomery, tall and spirited, sneaks in a chuckle, in spite or disbelief, as he talks about the last year. The lost house. His wife's job. He sprinkles the cheese powder on the chicken as Zach looks on.
"It does make you feel like less of a person," he says.
"You've only got that door," Zach says, looking at the chain lock and deadbolt separating them from the outside world. "I'm thinking someone's going to come in, just come in and do whatever they think they can do."
Homeless. Zach isn't sure that's the word he'd used to describe their situation.
"If we were in a car I'd say we were more homeless," the stocky, soft-spoken boy says.
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 hard hit Florida and echoes the rising numbers seen nationwide as well.
While the nation's unemployment rate has declined to 8.3 percent, in rural Lake County it's still a bruising 9.9 percent.
Teachers like Sheri Hevener started seeing signs of homelessness in her students. They seemed lethargic. More started falling behind.
"There are some students where it is easily identifiable," she says. "And then there are others that you can't tell because they hide it, for fear."
Zach wasn't one of Hevener's students. When he showed up at her classroom one day, she wasn't sure why he'd come to see her.
Hevener, a business teacher, runs a pantry at the school for homeless students.
"I just wanted to know about it," Zack said.
She told him about how he could participate in what functions like a secret backpack society. Hevener is the only one who knows the names of the kids involved. Each week they receive a backpack with canned vegetables and boxed meals.
Hevener didn't ask Zack why he needed the help or what his story was.
"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 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 monthly in rent, but the landlord had not kept up with the mortgage. The next morning two movers came over and within 90 minutes all of their furniture was outside.
And then it started to rain.
"Needless to say we didn't make it in time," Montgomery says.
Much of their furniture was ruined. In between trips to a storage locker, neighbors came and plucked items from the yard.
That night the Montgomerys stayed at a Days Inn. Between the move and hotel stay, the little savings they had was gone.
Situated on top of a hill, The Palace is made of brick and has a lobby that reeks of cigarettes.
The Montgomerys room has two full size beds, a television, one bathroom and one sink, which they use to brush their teeth, shave — and wash the dishes.
For a while, things seemed to be getting better. Then in October, Dawn Montgomery lost her job as a bus driver at Disney. Two months later, her husband got sick with a painful abscess.
The services they thought would help pull them out have come up short. They don't have debt but just can't get back ahead.
"You just worry," Ronald Montgomery says. "What's going to happen today?"
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, districts are required to let homeless students attend their original school and help provide transportation.
"Home life is not that great," says Kristin McCall, the Lake County School District's homeless liaison. "But if we can keep them at the same school they've been attending, same friends, same teacher, and at least keep that consistent and stable, that's our goal."
At about $600 a month, living in a motel costs about the same as many apartment rentals. Yet it quickly becomes a trap: While families can afford the monthly payment, they can't save up enough to put down a deposit for a more permanent place.
Some of the kids at East Ridge High School know about Zach's situation. But he doesn't volunteer much information.
Zach's favorite subject is math and he's thinking about becoming a mechanic. But what he really likes is architecture.
"I want to make buildings," he says. "Probably houses."
But Zach hasn't made it to class lately. He says he often wakes up feeling sick. His dad says he tried to arrange transportation to the school, about 10 miles away, but his messages were not returned.
"That seemed to fall on deaf ears," he says.
The backpack from the school's food pantry is empty.
The next day at school, Zach is not there.
"What can I do?" Hevener says after hearing the news. "There's something more. There's got to be more."
The district can't say whether anyone tried to contact Zach's family to make arrangements after he didn't show up repeatedly for class. After being asked, calls are made and transportation arranged.
Hevener worries about him dropping out.
"I think it's created a type of anger because of the system, because of what he had to experience," Hevener says. "And a lot of confusion. Like, 'Why?' Why did you treat me like that?"
Zach was home, still feeling ill after running a fever, when his father walked in. Ronald Montgomery had just been fired.
The teenager seemed nonchalant when he heard the news. It was as if it hadn't set in. Or as if one more blow was no longer capable of hurting him.
"I'm just waiting for whatever happens next," he says.