JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's back to school time for kids in Duval County. There are more than
130,000 kids headed to class in DCPS and there's a much smaller group of students, some keeping a secret about where they live, what they have and the simple things they really want.
We're talking about homelessness which affects 3,160 children in the district. They’re children you've likely seen but perhaps have not heard from, until now.
Lania Putrinelli is excited yet anxious about delving into the 4th grade.
"Kind of nervous," said Lania, 9. "What's it going to be like?"
She's had a few not so good experiences in the past.
"I tried telling them and they told other kids, I literally told them that I live in a shelter and they told other kids, and they told other kids," said Lania.
It's something she's attempted to keep a secret, “It feels kind of embarrassing. Most of them are surprised by that because they don't know many kids that live in shelters. So it's kind of surprising to them."
Lania lives in the Sulzbacher Center with her mother, two sisters, baby brother and about 28 other families.
"It's temporary,” said Lania’s mother, Lashana Brock . “I always try to keep them focused on- we're headed to something bigger."
Brock's story, her path to homelessness is a familiar one. It’s filled with regrettable decisions.
But her focus is on what's ahead. It’s the direction she keeps her daughter aiming toward.
Explaining to Lania she has nothing to be ashamed of.
"Well, we're all people right,” said Lania. “So that doesn't make us any different. But we do have different personalities that makes us each special."
There are about 82 children living in the center, 52 of them are school aged. And thanks to Sulzbacher's programs and the community's generosity each of them received a new outfit for their first day of school, backpacks and supplies.
"We have a lot of children that a lot of people don't realize are sitting right next to them in classes and they're homeless," said Maxine Engram.
For nine years Engram has helped kids at Sulzbacher gear up for school, filling them with more than the obvious necessities.
"This is just a bump in the road,” said Engram. “My greatest challenge is to get them to think beyond being homeless."
Lania is already looking far beyond her Sulzbacher address on East Adams Street. She recently won a contest at the shelter by painting her dream home for the holidays.
"The lights are on in the garage because I kind of keep the bird in there," said Lania while pointing to her award winning painting.
Sulzbacher certainly isn't her dream home. It’s a shared space with strangers often nearby. But there’s a lengthy waiting list for families with children wanting to get off the streets and into an unfamiliar bed. A place to get a good night's sleep for the school day ahead.
“I'm thankful that I have a place to stay,” said Lania.
FCN reached out to several local districts to find out how many students are going to class every day without the stability of knowing where they’ll be living in the coming days, weeks and months. Homelessness is a real problem for thousands of students. In Duval County public schools 3,160 students are homeless. In St. Johns County, the number one school district in the state ended last semester with 895 homeless students. A spokesperson says Hurricane Matthew was a contributing factor to that number. And in Clay County they’re seeing a slightly higher number of homeless students at 944.