LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Nearly 3,600 students in Polk County Public Schools are considered homeless, a 400 student increase from the previous year.

“Having that struggle has become a way of life. We are seeing more and more families that it has not been a way of life for them. This is something completely new,” said Ben Ruch, the homeless liaison for Polk County Public Schools.

Ruch was one of the panel members at a forum on homelessness in Lakeland on Thursday.

“If we have a student who is waking up in the morning at a motel that they can’t afford to stay at anymore, and they have no idea where they’re going to stay that night. Imagine bringing that to school with you,” he said.

The price of housing has skyrocketed, too. Advocates say that’s making it harder for people to stay in affordable housing.

It’s causing some people to become homeless when they had no expectation of facing that problem.

Erica Smith shared her story at the forum as she’s experienced homelessness since she was 13-years-old. She offered advice to students experiencing homelessness.

“Try to be calm and patient, and just try to find places to go to help that offer to help and help you,” Smith said.

Leaders encourage you to visit the Polk County Public Schools website for more information about resources to help students in need or to learn how you can help.