CLERMONT, Fla. – Zach Montgomery's dad plugs in the electric skillet and opens the cardboard box containing tonight's dinner.
The liquid from the canned chicken sizzles as it hits the skillet.
Zach, a 17-year-old high school student in Clermont, Florida, a bucolic town of rolling hills and palm trees outside Orlando, 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.
Zach says he worries, about everything. Getting to school is tough. When his dad's paycheck dries up a few days early, there isn't money for gas. Sometimes, his mom says, he just doesn't want to go. Zach worries about their safety. Police arrested four people running a mobile meth lab near the motel the week before. There are sights and smells Zach had never come across before he lived here. At night, when the television is off, they hear things that scare them.
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. The illnesses. He pours in the rice and sprinkles the cheese powder on the chicken in the skillet as Zach looks on.
"It does make you feel like less of a person, or you're a failure, because you're not providing everything that you've been providing in the past," he says.
"You've only got that door," Zach says, looking at the chain lock and deadbolt separating their room and two beds 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.
"I do but don't," the stocky, soft-spoken boy says. "If we were in a car I'd say we were more homeless.
"I'd like to have a house," he continues. "But at least I have a roof."
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. Some of those children are living with their parents in a friend's or relative's house. Others are in shelters or motels like Zach. Some with nowhere else to turn take refuge in the woods.
While the nation's unemployment rate has declined to 8.3 percent, in rural Lake County it's still a bruising 9.9 percent. Clermont, the county's largest town, was once predominantly an agricultural community, but in recent years, farms were sold and land cleared for new developments. Then came the recession.
Roads paved in anticipation of new homes and families lead to empty lots. Restaurants that dotted the sparse suburban landscape like Perkins and Dairy Queen have shuttered their doors. Jobs here are scarce.
"We had a lot of people in the construction field, and that has pretty much come to a standstill," says Kristin McCall, the Lake County School District's homeless liaison. "I'm not sure if they've all been able to get back to work. And if they are, I don't think financially it's what they were at before."
Teachers like Sheri Hevener started seeing signs of the distress, and in some cases, homelessness, in her students. They seemed lethargic. More started falling behind on their homework.
"There are some students where it is easily identifiable," she says. "They wear the same thing. It's visibly easy to tell.
"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 with a friend one day, she wasn't sure why the teenage boy in a T-shirt and shorts that hovered below his knees had come to see her. He carried himself with a sort of confidence that didn't indicate he needed help.
"There were no visual signs," Hevener says. "But I knew he was there for one of two reasons. Nobody comes here unless they're there for one of two reasons."
Hevener, a business teacher, runs a pantry at the school for homeless students and others in need.
"I just wanted to know about it," Zack said when he met her.
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 student is assigned a backpack, which students pack each week with canned vegetables and boxed meals. The pantry also has toiletries, notebooks, baby clothes and prom dresses.
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 from work and found a foreclosure notice on the front door of their three-bedroom home. All of their belongings had to be out within 24 hours.
They'd been paying $950 in rent every month, but the landlord had not kept up with the mortgage. The rental management company told him it was the first they'd heard of any problems with the bank. She promised to look into it and get back to him.
He got the call at work the next morning. The sheriff was coming to collect the keys. Two movers were going over to help. In the matter of an hour and a half all of their furniture was on the front lawn.
And then it started to rain.
"Needless to say we didn't make it in time," Montgomery says.
Zach's bedroom furniture and two living room sets were ruined. In between trips in a U-Haul to the storage locker Montgomery had rented, neighbors came and plucked items from the yard. When they went through the house one last time, the Montgomerys found the movers had hidden some of their items under sinks and in closets.
"They went through all my drawers," Zach says.
That night the Montgomerys stayed at a Days Inn. The little savings they had was gone. A friend's family took in Zach and brought him along on a vacation to St. Augustine.
"He had a wonderful time," Zach's mom, Dawn Montgomery says sadly, as though she were recalling a last good memory.
Situated on top of a hill on Interstate 27, The Palace is made of brick and has about a hundred rooms on two floors. The lobby reeks of cigarettes. An unfinished puzzle lies scattered on a table.
The motel offers a weekly rate of $155. For the Montgomery family it was just about the only option.
Their room has two full size beds, a table with a television, and a wall stacked with all of their belongings. There's one bathroom and one sink, which they use to brush their teeth, shave — and wash the dishes. A plastic bag holds all their utensils. The beds double as a dining room table.
For a while, things seemed to be getting better. But then, in October, Dawn Montgomery lost her job as a bus driver at Disney, where she had worked for 13 years. Two months later, her husband got sick. An untreated cavity turned into a painful abscess that caused his entire jaw to swell. Fortunately, they still had health insurance from his job.
The services they thought would help pull them out have come up short. They were denied food stamps because Ronald Montgomery made $160 a month too much. Food banks weren't much of a help.
"You go to the food bank and its like, 'You can go here once a month,'" Dawn Montgomery says. "That bag is not going to last me once a month."
The Montgomerys also are now caring for their 5-year-old granddaughter. Their daughter lives in California.
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, even if they move outside the boundaries, and help provide transportation.
"Home life is not that great," McCall says. "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."
There's another benefit.
"And if we get them there, we can feed them," McCall says.
At about $600 a month, the cost of living in a motel is about the same as many apartment rentals. Yet living in a motel quickly becomes its own kind of trap: While families can afford the monthly payment, they can't save up enough to put down a deposit for a more permanent place.
"We're going to stay here a few weeks and then somewhere else," McCall says families tell her. "And then in two weeks you don't hear from them. They're still there."
Some of the kids at East Ridge High School know about Zach's situation. But he doesn't volunteer much and he doesn't bring friends home after school.
"I'm not really embarrassed," Zach says. "It's just such a small room. You can't really do anything except sit."
To escape, Zach immerses himself in video games he was able to save from the house.
Zach's favorite subject is math and he's thinking about becoming an auto 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. Some days there just isn't money for gas. 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."
If gas is the issue, maybe there's someone in the community who can help, she wonders aloud.
"He has dreams and hopes of doing something and when you're in a situation like this that looks very bleak," she says.
Others at the school district also struggle for an explanation of Zach's absences. There is a bus less than a quarter mile away from the motel. Did he know about it?
"If we have a bus that's going there and he's not getting to school it's not because we don't have a bus," McCall says.
Hevener said she hadn't seen Zach come to pick up a bag of food since Christmas. She'd inquired with his teachers and they hadn't seen him either.
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? Why did you treat me like I was less than human?'"
Zach was home, still feeling ill after running a fever the night before, when his father walked in. The elder Montgomery had just been fired by Disney.
The teenager seemed nonchalant when he heard his father had losthis job. It was as though the news 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.