It has been home for nine months now.
"We're the lucky ones," said their mother, Patricia, about to prepare dinner in a small microwave and electric skillet set up on the bathroom counter. "At least we have a roof over our heads."
Osceola County, by some measures the poorest in Central Florida, officially has 2,200 public-school children who are homeless, although the actual number may be twice that. They live in aging, rent-by-the-week motel complexes along the U.S. Highway 192 tourist corridor, doubled up with friends and relatives, or in cars and travel trailers.
Their numbers have boomed since the onset of the recession, when they began to migrate to the schools of Celebration — the well-to-do, manicured, Disney-developed community down the highway from those aging motels. The contrast was not lost on the parents.
"Second-graders have their own iPhone 4s," said Jaime Campbell, who spent 13 months in various motel rooms with her husband and three children before the family moved into a place of its own last month. "Sierra, my 10-year-old, is having a birthday next week, and some of her classmates wanted a printed agenda of what was going to happen at her birthday party. My other kids — it doesn't bother them so much, but Sierra is a people-pleaser."
But if some were insensitive, more were compassionate. A group of Celebration residents launched a grass-roots effort to help, triggering what has become a communitywide mission to provide everything from food and hygiene items to classroom supplies and prom dresses for homeless families.
"The effort sort of snowballed," said Gloria Niec, executive director of the Celebration Foundation, a 15-year-old nonprofit that took up the cause last year. "We were simply a catalyst. So many people have gotten involved, it's amazing."
Michael Hampton, for instance, got work clothes from one donor. His family gets food through a Presbyterian church group and another nonprofit, Celebration 34747 Cares. Volunteers throughout the county have set up clothing closets at schools and distributed food-filled backpacks so kids don't go hungry on weekends or holiday breaks. And government-outreach workers are signing up parents for housing programs that will help them get out of motel rooms and into apartments.
At a recent event to package a high-protein casserole mix for homeless students, about 1,500 volunteers showed up. They included hospital workers, church members, teachers, Scout troops, at least one county commissioner — and even some of the homeless families themselves.
"I think because the way these children were living was such a shocking situation to everybody, people felt compelled to help," said Celestia McCloud, the county's human-services manager. "It was like: We have to do something."
Under the radar
Before 2007, homelessness was virtually invisible in Osceola County. Sure, if you knew where to look, you could find camps in the woods or the occasional street person.
But the recession hit here with a vengeance.
"I have 750 kids in hotels," said Meredith Griffin, the homeless-education liaison for Osceola County schools. "They're easy to count because they have a hotel receipt.
"But I think the biggest increase in homelessness — and the ones that can fly under the radar — is the families who have moved in with other families," she said. "Some agencies don't look at them as homeless, and even the family themselves don't often think of themselves as homeless. They say: 'Well, I'm living in a house' — but it's mom, dad and four kids all in a spare bedroom in the home of a friend from church."
Unlike Orange and Seminole, there is no emergency homeless shelter in Osceola, and regional attempts to address homelessness have largely neglected the county, where unemployment still hovers above 10 percent and the foreclosure rate remains one of the nation's highest.
"It's a very different environment than Orange and Seminole," said Cathy Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Services Network, which helps funnel grant money to worthy programs. "The poverty rate is much higher, and as a consequence you have many, many families who are precariously housed to start with. That has created this horrible migration from rented homes and apartments into motels when people lost jobs or their incomes dropped. "