In public schools across America, more than 1.3 million students have been identified as homeless.
Students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of high school, according to Education Leads Home, a national campaign working to break the cycles of poverty and homelessness in the United States.
Within Metro Nashville Public Schools alone, there are an estimated 3,400 students experiencing homelessness.
Under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homelessness is defined as a lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. That could mean students living in shelters, cars, public spaces, substandard housing or with other families due to the lack of alternative accommodations or students who live a migratory lifestyle.
It’s those students that people like Alison McArthur and Catherine Knowles hope to serve through their work.
Seven years ago, McArthur began working with colleagues to design an initiative called Community Achieves. Now, she serves as Community Achieves Coordinator and says the program currently has a site coordinator at each of its 22 partner schools.
MacArthur says it was her hope that the program would serve as a means of identifying and providing supports around areas of challenge for MNPS students and families through internal programs and community partnerships.
That might look like food insecurity, lack of school clothing or inadequate healthcare, and in some schools, there might be a need for parental empowerment. Community Achieves provides supports for parents and the wider community too by offering GED and ESL courses.
“It varies across the board and schools, and the supports will look different in each community. The schools coordinate lots of events for families so they can come to school and learn about ways to advocate for their students, and then, there are just basic needs for the families, like food boxes, clothing, diapers, hygiene items,” she says.
In some schools — like Two Rivers Middle Prep and Donelson Middle School— the need for food assistance overwhelms.
Twenty-eight of the 427 students at Two Rivers Middle Prep are experiencing homelessness, and nearly 90 percent of the student body is classified as economically disadvantaged. Operated on campus is an in-school food pantry, which serves as a food distribution point for low-income members of the community during the school year and summer months.
McArthur says, however, that the need for food and homelessness do not always go hand-in-hand.
“The needs vary across the board and in the different schools. It really is about knowing the families and listening to know how we can best help them,” she says. “Before schools look for partners, they should identify the needs and get students and parent voices. If those aren’t available, we will work with external partners, and HERO is a good example of that.”
HERO is a program guided by federal law that is dedicated to providing students identified as homeless with the support and tools necessary to succeed in school.
Catherine Knowles, MNPS Homeless Liaison, has worked to serve more than 3,400 students who are experiencing homelessness this year alone.
With the growth Nashville is experiencing, Knowles said she has worked with families who have been displaced by the increase in living expenses and the lack of affordable housing. Because of that, she says one of the primary goals of HERO is providing students with transportation.
“We have even had a number of families who have had to leave Davidson County, and because of that, we work with adjacent counties to cover the overlap between students who come and go. We may have a student who has become homeless in Davidson County, and it’s our job to make sure they are allowed to remain in their school even if they have to move. We work together to provide for the needs of students, and it ends up being nearly 1000 students in a school year,” Knowles says.
To benefit from the HERO program, a student must be deemed eligible. But MacArthur said they can often run into problems just identifying all eligible students.
“Sometimes there are families that won’t apply because they are afraid that if they admit to being homeless, that maybe someone would take their kids from them. That’s not the case,” MacArthur says. “
Despite the perceived risk, Knowles said within the first six weeks of school, she will have a roster of about 1,000 students in need of support.
“A lot of folks look at homelessness so narrowly, but a lot of times, the challenges are very similar to people face experiencing poverty — that constant need for assistance with things that might generally be outside a family’s financial reach,” Knowles says. “We fully recognize that every circumstance is unique. [We just want to] know what our families’ needs are … so we can work together to provide for those needs.”
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