November is National Homeless Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about a problem which is growing in our community.
As the cost of housing continues to rise, even working families sometimes cannot afford the first, last, and security deposit needed to rent an apartment.
For students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, homelessness could be as close as the kid sitting next to them in class.
"It's awful, I'm just gonna say it like that, people look at you differently," explained Elletia Addison-Phelps, a senior at Carol City High School.
More than 9,000 students in the in the district are homeless. Elletia is no longer among them, but the emotional scars from her time living in a shelter, when she was in elementary school, are still with her.
"The kids started seeing that I would wear the same clothes almost on an everyday basis and they just started picking on me," Elletia said.
In those days, The Shop didn't exist. It's a one-stop shopping destination for homeless kids and for families on the verge of losing a stable place to live. The Shop has everything from shoes, clothing, and accessories to non-perishable food. It's all provided by the school district, and it's all free to those who have next to nothing.
"A lot of families would suffer without a place like The Shop," said Diana Venturini, who is in charge of the homeless outreach program at MDCPS.
"I have calls all the time from people who have full-time jobs who say, Debra, I did not expect to be in this situation, it takes a divorce, a car accident, one illness and a fire in your home and all of a sudden you're in this situation," said Debra Albo-Steiger of Project Up-Start, another effort by the school district to provide services for the kids who need them the most.
For those neediest kids in the school district, The Shop is like a lifeline, it gives them a chance at success in school and in the workforce.
"I was on the street for a long time, living under the bridge at Flagler," said Dariel Molina, who says he was homeless for seven years and dropped out of traditional high school.
Molina was shopping for shoes and picked up a backpack at The Shop. He is not currently homeless, but he relies on this resource to help him succeed at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Center.
"I'm getting my GED over here and it's great 'cause these people help me out, I didn't have to pay anything, they just help you out, whatever you need they're here for you," Molina said about The Shop.
"What's nice is it's year-around, and because our families can come here, our appointments are confidential, they don't have to feel they are at risk for being stigmatized," Albo-Steiger said.
The school district says it has 462 unaccompanied homeless teens, those are kids living on their own as Molina once did.
When they come to The Shop, they tend to ask the same question.
"What size am I, can you tell me?" Venturini said, explaining that most of them have never been to a real retail store to buy things. "No idea, shoes, forget it, no idea whatsoever."
The challenge for the staff is identifying homeless kids and reassuring them that their privacy is always respected.
"No one needs to go without, it's a matter of awareness and letting the families know we're here for you," Venturini said.