Trey is just a child. When he showers, he has to shower in the middle of the woods without running water. So many things we take for granted he doesn't have.
And he’s not alone.
There are more than 70,000 kids like Trey in Florida – homeless children who, if they’re lucky, sleep in a car or in a motel. Who, if they’re lucky, get to use indoor plumbing.
In the second wealthiest county in Florida is the top-rated school district in the state. But St. Johns County has a sad truth not many are aware of.
Hidden among the pristine communities and manicured lawns are hundreds of homeless students.
The district’s homeless liaison, Kim McNickle, says there are more than 700 students right now who are homeless.
“They’re a little shocked that we even have homeless in St. Johns County,” says McNickle of residents. “And then, when I tell them, and we have homeless in every single school that even shocks them a little more.”
But these students don’t always live on the street – some homeless students live in cars and many couch surf.
“This little area here is more for holding food,” says Ericka Alderman. She lives with her four children in the woods hidden off a dirt road in tents. “You can come in here. You just have to squat a little bit. I’ve got it set up – I’ve got it looking like home as much as possible.”
Alderman and her kids moved to the First Coast right before Hurricane Matthew hit. She grew up in St. Johns County and returned for the good schools. The home they planned to rent got flooded. With nowhere to go, they’ve lived in their car, motels and are now making the best of a terrible situation.
“This is the first time I’ve been put in a situation like this,” she says. “And this is what we used to do for fun and now I’ll probably – once I get a place – I’ll never go camping again.”
Alderman’s two youngest kids go to preschool. Her oldest two go to elementary school in St. Johns County.
“I’m learning about math, multiplication, handwriting…” explains one of her children. He says, excitedly, that his favorite subject is recess.
We aren’t showing his face because his mom says most of his classmates have no idea this is where he and his sister go when they get off the school bus.
“My third grader,” begins Alderman, “she gets dressed at school. She goes into the office. And my fourth grader gets showers every Monday and Friday at school to stay clean.”
It isn’t much, but she says at least her children’s grades are great. One of her biggest challenges is keeping her children clean. They use a makeshift shower. The water comes from a bag they fill up. A shower head is on a hose. When in use, it can’t run constantly or all the water will be used up.
They go to the bathroom in an old Lincoln Logs bucket.
“Yes, that’s where we go to the bathroom,” Alderman explains. “We put a bag in it and sit down. Unfortunately, that’s it.”
Her two sons sleep in a tent together.
“It’s probably a mess right now, but this is where I sleep,” he says, showing First Coast News On Your Side Anchor Heather Crawford around. “My brother sleeps on his mattress right here and I sleep right here.”
Their conditions are tight, cramped and they have worries unlike most kids their age. Living in the woods, they have to think about wild animals. Just this week, raccoons got away with their loaf of bread.
“It’s normally when just I wake up,” her oldest son says of times he gets scared. “Because the wild boars are out and I just wake up alone.”
He says he doesn’t like living in a tent much because the mosquitoes bite him and he doesn’t have any friends to play with.
The school district has a program called ASSIST (that's Aid & Support for Students in Sudden Transition) to help identify homeless students, give them hope and provide them with resources to try and break the cycle.
A local judge says not enough is being done to help homeless children in the area. He argues the Department of Children and Families is ignoring the problem and failing the children – not just in his county but across the state.
Across Florida, more than 7,000 homeless children are considered “unaccompanied youth,” meaning they have no mom or dad in the picture and no legal guardian caring for them.
As of February, there are around 100 kids living alone in St. Johns County and about 30 of them are elementary school age.
Megan Wall is the managing attorney of St. Johns County Legal Aid, a non-profit that helps the poor. She deals regularly with children who have nowhere to go.
“We’re talking about elementary school kids,” she says. “We’re talking about 16-year-old girls that don’t know what to do about, you know, people coming up to them to traffic them. I mean, we’re talking about people that are under eighteen that don’t have anybody to go to.”
Circuit Judge John Alexander says it’s unacceptable. He meets each month with a committee he formed that includes representatives from the school district, Legal Aid and DCF to track how many students are homeless and see how they can help them.
“We started meeting a couple years ago to do something and try to fill the void where the Department of Children and Families won’t step forward on his kids,” he says.
“Until Judge Alexander called me and said, ‘look, I’m getting these numbers from the school system. Can you believe these numbers?’ I really didn’t even think that they were accurate,” Wall says. “It is an unbelievably hidden amount of children.”
Judge Alexander says he believes DCF is focusing on kids who are overtly abused and ignore kids whose problems – though they may seem less dire in the short term – need help.
“Can anyone make an argument that the child being raised in a car, no kitchen, no bathroom – raised in a car – is not at risk of being abused, abandoned or neglect,” Judge Alexander says. “I don’t think that argument can be made.”
First Coast News reached out to speak with the head of the Department of Children and Families but we were told no one was available to be interviewed.
A spokesperson sent us a statement saying, in part:
“Unlike abuse, abandonment or neglect, homelessness alone is not an automatic qualifier for state intervention. DCF works very closely with the school system in St. Johns County and is committed to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to be safe, healthy and educationally and developmentally on track.”
Alderman says DCF knows her kids live in tents and she fears the state will take them away from her.
“It seems like DCF really should be identifying every one of those kids and at least providing what services would be appropriate for that particular child,” Judge Alexander says. “I see DCF just saying all we can do are, you know, life or death cases and we are at our wit’s end with those.”
Hours before this story was published, it seemed as though Alderman and her children would have to stay living in the woods while she looks for a job. However, DCF reached out to her and said they’re putting them up in a hotel – with real beds, a real roof, running water and warm showers for a whole week. Originally, DCF was going to put them up for two days.
But Alderman is still looking for a permanent place – and a brighter future.
“Hopefully a more stable place to live,” she says. “That’s the number one goal that we try and work on every day.”
If you’re wondering what you can do to help, just get involved.
In St. Johns County, the school district has a program called ASSIST that will gladly accept your donations. The program is also looking for mentors.
Below you'll find the Florida Department of Education's information on homeless students throughout the state. And below that, you can read DCF's full statement in response to our inquiries for this story.
Thank you for reaching out regarding your inquiry.
We are not available for an interview, but please see the information below.
Florida statute provides that, “Any person who knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that a child is abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent, legal custodian, caregiver, or other person responsible for the child's welfare, as defined in this chapter, or that a child is in need of supervision and care and has no parent, legal custodian, or responsible adult relative immediately known and available to provide supervision and care shall report such knowledge or suspicion to the department in the manner prescribed in subsection (2).”
As such, the responsibility to report concerns about a child who may be homeless or abandoned rests with all individuals – including DCF.
DCF’s legal role in the life of a child is typically initiated through a call to the central Abuse Hotline, which triggers a child protective investigation.
If an investigation that results in findings requiring intervention for safety or services, the child enters the state dependency system through a child protective investigation. Unlike abuse, abandonment, or neglect, homelessness alone is not an automatic qualifier for state dependency.
Federal funding for programs and services to federally-defined homeless individuals, including youth, is provided to the local continuums of care through DCF. The continuums then provide the services to homeless or unaccompanied youth.
DCF works very closely with the school system in St. Johns County and is committed to ensuring that every child has the opportunity to be safe, healthy, and educationally and developmentally on track.
Jessica K. Sims, Communications Director, Florida Department of Children and Families
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you want to help, here are the specific donations you can make:
- Food gift cards (Publix, Winn Dixie) no more than $25.
- Gift cards for new shoes where they just sell shoes (Rackroom or Payless)
- Gift cards to Walmart or Target
- School supplies like composition books, notebooks, folders with prongs, colored pencils, highlighters, pencils and paper
- Cleaning supplies
- Hot pads for cooking in hotels
- New bedding: Twin sheets, queen sheets
ASSIST Address: 47 Orange St in St. Augustine, (904)-547-7593