If anyone knows life’s blessings, Catherine Knowles does. As the coordinator of Metro School’s homeless population, she begins her day helping Nashville’s kids who don’t have a place to call home. She does this with commitment and grace, especially when it comes to advocating for those who need her most. We are inspired by her dedication and proud to have her as today’s FACES of Nashville.
Can you describe your job as coordinator for the homeless population who attend Metro Schools?
As coordinator of The HERO Program for Families in Transition, I serve students and families in Metro Schools who qualify as homeless because they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. We provide students experiencing homelessness with school clothes, backpacks, school supplies and food. We can arrange special transportation for students to remain in one school rather than having to transfer every time they might move. I also ensure that the school district is in compliance with the educational requirements of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. During the 2013-2014 school year we served nearly 3,200 student experiencing homelessness in Metro Schools and two months into the current year we are rapidly approaching 1,500.
What is the toughest part of your job?
The toughest part is knowing that there are no quick fixes for most of the families that I serve because of the demand for affordable housing is so great and the resources available in our community are so limited. When families call in for assistance because they have just been evicted or have been burned out of a home, there is usually some sense of hope in their voice for the first few minutes of their call. I listen to their stories, offer information about the support and resources that are available, but most of the time families are stunned that there is no safety net, no immediate place for them to go other than the limited family shelters that we have. My heart breaks a bit each time I hear the hope they had fade away to be replaced with shock, anger or utter devastation. Homelessness is tragic, but it is a very real event for many in our community. Nashville has some exciting initiatives launched to address homelessness (the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, the How’s Nashville campaign, The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, etc.) and I am hopeful about how they will impact the families I serve.
If you could address one misconception about Metro Public Schools’ homeless families what would it be?
The face of homelessness I see each day is of mothers and fathers doing all that they can to provide for their families — children who are eager to go to school. The families I serve have had to make difficult choices in the face of unfathomable hardship and they are doing an amazing job of getting through each day. The families I serve are smart and they are resourceful; they are strong and brave; they are resilient.
Do you have any advice on how we may better serve the families with which you work?
The Nashville community has a great sense of volunteerism and there are many great projects and causes to support. I love that about our city and I encourage everyone, young and old, to pick their passion and support it 100%. The most successful community partnerships we have are those where groups have pledged regular support for a specific need—Woodmont Hills Church of Christ pays for birth certificates for our families and the Bellevue YMCA supports multiple projects throughout the year including a back to school sock and underwear drive, food bags for school breaks and an inflatable mattress drive.
Delorse Hawkins, a Metro Schools co-worker, who worked in a clothing center operated by the Social Work Department in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I started with the homeless program, I had a Master’s degree in social work and two years of “real work” experience but that was in the area of medical social work. I had also worked as a part-time tutor at one local homeless shelter for families, but that really had not prepared me for my new position. Delorse was a single mother and Habitat for Humanity homeowner who truly understood the struggles of families experiencing homelessness. She educated me about a world that was completely new to me and she always believed I would eventually get it right. To this day, she remains one of the most important people in my life.
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
“Remember who you belong to”—that was my dad’s typical farewell whenever my brothers and I left the house during our teenage years. He intended it as a gentle reminder to be polite and to stay out of trouble, but as an adult now, I see it as much more than that. I belong to a wonderful community of family and friends. I take care of them and they take care of me. Each day at work, I am reminded that I also belong to the larger Nashville community, far beyond the neighborhood where I grew up or where my husband and I are raising our kids, and I hear my dad’s voice. I know that I have a responsibility to advocate for those in our community who do not always have a voice that is heard. I take care of them and they take care of me.
Is there an upcoming event that you are looking forward to attending?
Absolutely! The Will Hoge concert at Marathon Music Work on November 30.
Is there a local restaurant that has wowed you?
As a creature of habit, I have one favorite dish at the restaurants I frequent—last week it was PM for the East Meets Wedge Salad and Green Curry Mussels.
Where in town do you go when you’re looking for an inspirational boost?
I’m a homebody at heart, so whenever I need a lift, home with Jay, the kids and the dog is where I want to be.
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
As a native Nashvillian, I love all of the growth and development that is finally making my boring old hometown cool, but my work-self has serious concerns about the impact of all of this growth on the affordable housing market. I would love to see the city develop clear plans about how and where to protect and increase the affordable housing inventory so that Nashville will grow in a direction that can accommodate all of its citizens in fair and affordable housing.
What books are on your bedside table?
- Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith–a book club book that really made me think
- Dr Carbles is Losing His Marbles by Dan Gutman–my son’s current favorite
Do you have any irrational fears?
Being late. I consider my timeliness at all events, activities, appointments, etc. to just be a sign of good manners and an appreciation for punctuality, but I am certain my friends and family consider it a true disorder. My teenage daughter has just come to accept the fact that she will always be 15-20 minutes early everywhere as long as I am driving her, but I’m always willing to circle the block or park the car and wait so we arrive on time.
What are 3 things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
NPR, flip flops and a good night’s sleep. Special thanks to Ashley for today’s gorgeous photos! Ashleyhylbert.com