Catherine Knowles has been working with children experiencing homelessness for more than 20 years. As the Homeless Education Program Coordinator for Metro Nashville Public Schools, her hard work and dedication toward helping those in need has earned her the Homeless Liason of the Year Award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Knowles says she lives by the mantra to “leave the world a better place than you found it.”
Knowles sat down with The Contributor to discuss her recent honor and explain why she’s spent two decades working with the community.
How did you begin working with children who are homeless?
I have been in the exact same job in the district for 22 years. I was born and raised in Nashville. I actually started tutoring part time at one of the local homeless shelters that doesn’t exist anymore. I went to the shelter two nights a week and helped kids with their homework. Then, the director for this program left, so I applied for the job, and it’s just what I continue to do. But my background is in social work.
How would you describe your role as homeless education program coordinator?
It’s multifaceted. A significant amount of my work has to do with the compliance piece with the federal law. My team — we are responsible for ensuring that everyone in the district is compliant with the federal law. Then, there’s the direct service piece. Last school year, we served about 3,400 students. … We provide backpacks and supplies, we provide clothing, we provide food assistance through a partnership with Second Harvest. We also provide special transportation to keep students in one school, no matter where they’re living. We also do referrals to help families find housing and I also serve on a couple local and statewide committees. It’s really multifaceted — no day is ever the same; it’s not a boring job.
What would you want people to know about child homelessness that is often misunderstood?
The biggest issue really is that definition of who we serve. Under the Department of Education, the definition of “homeless” they use is prescribed through the McKinney-Vento Act. Under federal law for education, you qualify as a student experiencing homelessness if you lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence. What that means for us and nationwide, is that 80% of students that school districts identify as homeless are living with friends and relatives because they don’t have housing of their own. So that’s the “doubled-up” category of homelessness. The broader definition includes students and families that are living in weekly rental motels. It certainly includes people in shelter programs or transitional housing programs, and unsheltered folks.
What resources do you need to better do your job?
I think Nashville just needs a greater stock of affordable housing. I think that’s a struggle and challenge for our city. As we grow and prosper, we need to be sure that we’re creating housing opportunities for everyone, whether it’s workforce housing or affordable housing. I think we need to pay a little bit more attention as a city to develop those lower-income rental units.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
In the last two years, we got some legislation passed in the state. It’s been nice after this many years to feel like we’re changing things on a statewide level. The individual rewards are really being able to respond to the limited individual needs that I can. When someone calls and we have terribly cold weather, yes they need a place to live, but what they also really need is a coat for their child. And we can provide that immediate need that someone has.
What is the hardest part of what you do?
I think the hardest part is hearing the same stories from families over and over again and dealing with the reality of how limited our affordable housing options are for families. As someone who was born and raised in Nashville, I’d really love to see our city move into the direction where we really are a city all people, for all workers of all income levels, for all families of all races — being an inclusive city and making sure we are building a Nashville that has a place for everyone.
How do you feel about being honored as Homeless Liason of the Year Award?
It was a very nice honor! It was certainly a boost to my spirit, after 22 years of work, to be recognized in that way. I am really hopeful that I can use the attention and recognition of that to raise the profile of the issue and our program in the community. I want to be sure there are long-term benefits for the families that we serve.