Working to End an Invisible Issue (Joseph Kenkel & Ryan DeHoff, AmeriCorps VISTAs, Family Empowerment Program, Catholic Charities of Tennessee for The Contributor))

Posted 07/07/2016

The following story appeared in the June 27 - July 11, 2016 issue of The Contributor.

It is evident that, as a community, we have attached powerful stereotypes to homelessness. Maybe you imagine an older man asking for spare change on the corner of Broadway and 3rd. Maybe another picture is of an individual eating a hot meal at the Rescue Mission. Informed by these stereotypes, we then prescribe homelessness with solutions that have nothing to do with how diverse and complicated an issue it truly is.

Whether it is chronic, veteran, youth, or family homelessness, each individual or group experiencing homelessness has a different story, different needs, and different characteristics. It is crucial that we understand: the blanket term of "homelessness," describes very little. In order to end homelessness, a community needs to understand the peculiarities of the issue at hand.

As an organization that advocates for families in Nashville, we are often met with wide-eyes and gasps regarding the facts:
* Over 3,000 students have been identified as homeless by Metro Nashville Public Schools.
* One-third of minors living in Nashville are living in poverty.

If the numbers are so high, why can't we see family homelessness? How can such a massive issue be so difficult to see?

Family homelessness is an invisible epidemic.

Families experiencing homelessness in our city rarely sleep outdoors or in shelters. Or, if they do stay in shelter, it is usually for a very short amount of time. Instead, families often stay doubled-up in friends' apartments, in motels, or in vehicles. Without the social or material resources they need, it is nearly impossible to escape the cyclical nature of these living situations.

Families fall into homelessness usually due to some unforeseen financial challenge, such as a death in the family, a lost job, or an unexpected bill, creating a situation where the family cannot maintain housing. With the looming affordable housing crisis in Nashville, this possibility of falling into homelessness is made even more concrete.

Take Carmen for example. Carmen is a mother of two school-aged boys. After a family member passed away due to gun violence, her family found themselves in a place they had never imagined. They stayed in shelter for a short time before moving into a motel. Motels, however, can be an extremely difficult place to transition out of. Without the location of an affordable housing unit and the appropriate funds for a long-term lease, what other option is there but to pay the $1200 to stay in a motel month to month?

Or, how about Tina? Tina is a single mother of 4 young children. After losing their home, they had no option but to double up in a family's apartment, cramped for space until they are able to move into a home of their own. In a city where it is necessary for most homeowners and renters to pay more than 30% of income for housing costs, it can be nearly impossible to transition into one's own home.

With funding from United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, Catholic Charities' Family Empowerment Program is partnering with Safe Haven Family Shelter to break such cycles of homelessness. Just within the past year, our partnership has served over 165 families. We are ecstatic about the success of the partnership, and look forward to the large-scale change still to be made as family homelessness service providers in Nashville.

However, we recognize that as long as family homelessness remains an invisible issue to the community, there is only so much our organizations can do to help. It is our belief that a successful approach to ending family homelessness will include collaboration between professional service providers, such as Catholic Charities case managers, and invested community members as advocates and true neighbors.

Over time, we hope to be able to host a series of events rooted in advocacy, awareness, volunteerism, and fundraising. Through these initiatives, we hope to build enough support to reach families' needs more effectively and quickly.

Most importantly, we aim to grow a community of Nashvillians that desires to build relationships with families that need it most.

For information about our program, or if you are interested in contributing to our family housing fund, please email or

Making a difference since 1962. CATHOLIC CHARITIES

2806 McGavock Pike
Nashville, TN 37214
Office: (615) 352-3087
Fax: (615) 352-8591

© 2019 Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc.