Last school year, 3,407 Metro students were identified as experiencing homelessness. The number is made up of students living in shelters, campsites, hotels, cars, transitional housing programs, and “doubled up” on the couches of family members or friends.
Metro’s Homeless Family Resource Program, also known as the HERO Program for Families in Transition, intakes students throughout the year, recording the number of students experiencing homelessness, identifying the cause of their families’ homelessness and connecting the families with supporting services.
Homeless Education Program Supervisor Catherine Knowles, who has been with the program for more than 20 years, says Nashville’s lack of affordable housing continues be the leading reason families are pushed into homelessness.
“It all gets back to the diminishing inventory of affordable housing. We continue to ask about why they’re doubled up or in motels; we’re continuing to see they have been previously leasing or renting, and that property is no longer available to them,” Knowles explained. “Apartment rents have gone up or landlords have dropped out of the Section 8 voucher program.”
Under the HERO Program, students and families receive help with school enrollment, standard school attire, school supplies, tutoring services, food services and connections to other in-town resources that aid with obtaining housing. Eligibility for the HERO program is determined by the federal definition of homelessness established under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The program also offers transportation for homeless students to their “school of origin,” allowing them to stay in the same school even if homelessness has forced the family out of the district. Last school year, 1,400 students received special transportation to remain in their school of origin, according to Knowles.
“We continue to get feedback that school of origin transportation is so vital to families,” she said. “We heard from families that that was by far the most helpful thing we provided. We also hear it from school staff, how relieved they are that they can keep students that have been making big progress.”
Knowles said that this school year, her program has a “renewed focus” on monitoring the attendance records of students using the transportation service.
“We want to make sure, as we’re providing transportation to get students back to the schools they want, that it’s a good long-term solution,” she said.
The number of students in the program resets at zero as a new school year kicks off, and Knowles will spend the next month registering students at shelters, bringing along a Metro enrollment specialist that saves parents a trip to the school or enrollment office. Knowles has already spent time training staff at smaller shelters how to register students, and she said she expects to register 1,100 homeless students by the end of August.
With a staff of two serving more than 3,000 homeless students and their families, Knowles is motivated by keeping education in the lives of students experiencing homelessness and poverty.
“Education is such an important piece in ending that cycle of homelessness,” she said. “Every year, there’s a significant number of families I’ve done a small thing for, and they’re so desperately grateful. I’m not having to move mountains to help these families; just providing a bus service or food makes a huge difference in their lives.”
Unicycle, a school uniform recycling program started by a Metro mom, has come alongside the HERO Program to provide school uniforms to homeless students. If you’d like to donate gently used standard school attire, contact email@example.com.
Knowles said her program is in need of school supplies, backpacks, tennis shoes, socks and underwear to give to students experiencing homelessness, as well as volunteers for tutoring services. Contact Knowles at Catherine.Knowles@mnps.org for more information.
Image credit: www.thespruce.com
Amelia Ferrell Knisely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.