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Hidden In Plain Sight: How You Are Helping Kids Cope With The Trauma Of Homelessness

Homelessness—the topic may conjure up images of cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, and heating grates— probably not of mothers pushing babies in strollers or kids carrying backpacks. But the realities of homelessness are more complex than any stereotype.

According to the McKinney-Vento Act, the term “homeless child and youth” includes minors living in shelters with or without family, doubling up with friends or extended family, settling into motels, campgrounds, trailer parks, or using vehicles for overnight shelter. However, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has their own definition, which is much more narrow and states that anyone who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence is considered homeless.

“In 2016, Nashville Rescue Mission provided shelter to over 700 unique children under the age of 18. Of those 57 percent were of school age,” said Rev. Glenn Cranfield, president and CEO of the Mission. “A record-breaking number of 106 children slept safely at the Mission back in September 2016, but we typically average 52 children each night. Unfortunately, these numbers continue to climb with each passing year.”

According to Catherine Knowles, homeless education program supervisor for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, “The total number of homeless students in the district during the 2016-2017 school year was 3,407 (based upon McKinney-Vento definition).”

“School is the one place where I feel normal,” said Robert,* age 10. “We’ve bounced around from place to place. School is about the only stable thing in my life. I like summer, but I’m looking forward to going back to school.”

For kids, the impact of homelessness or frequent moves is nothing less than traumatic, says Carolyn Grossley, director of Women’s Guest Services Ministry for the Mission. “People who are traumatized, or are under stress … they are not thinking with the cognitive part of their brains, but are thinking more with the survival part: fight, flight, or freeze,” she says.

These instincts may aid survival in a life of hard knocks, but they are counterproductive in the classroom and schoolyard. Homeless kids may think about hunger, old clothes, lack of school supplies, or constant anxiety about their family’s security. “It’s hard for a kid to concentrate when they’re more concerned about where they are going to sleep or if they’re going to eat that night,” said Grossley. “We want to try and eliminate as many of these worries as we can for the kids who stay with us.”

Studies indicate that children whose address has been in flux for more than a year are subject to developmental delays at four times the rate of their peers, are twice as likely to repeat a grade, and are identified with learning disabilities twice as often. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, they end up missing days, repeating grades, or dropping out entirely, and up to 40 percent have mental health problems.

“The stresses of homelessness typically begin well before a family arrives at the Mission and linger long after they leave,” said Holly Cowherd, children’s coordinator at the Mission. “There are usually years of people going from family member to family member or resource to friend before they become homeless. By the time they end up at the Mission, they are not just in a housing crisis, they are in a family crisis.”

“The need to support the emotional lives of the mothers and children we serve while they stay with us remains intense,” said Cranfield. “It’s a chance to meaningfully touch the lives of some of our city’s most vulnerable children and could prevent the need for more costly interventions later on.”

With your help, the Mission addresses many of these issues head on. With 24-hour cameras and around-the-clock security, the Mission provides a safe and secure environment for mothers and their children. The Mission works with a local health provider to make sure guests have transportation and access to medical care and to mental health care.

Each child starts the school year off with new school uniforms thanks to a generous supporter who sponsors this each year. “We make sure each child receives a brand new backpack, filled with school supplies,” said Cowherd.

“We have also worked with the school district so that buses pick up here first and drop off here last, to avoid any bullying kids might face for staying in a shelter.”

Volunteers come in regularly to assist kids with homework. There are additional opportunities to conduct special activities and projects for the kids while the mothers attend chapel services. “It’s pretty busy here and can get very loud, which makes it harder for me to focus and get my work done,” said Wendy,* age 14. “So having someone to assist me with my homework is a big help.”

“The children are silent victims in this situation,” said Cranfield. “While we have come a long way in terms of doing different things to help care for the children who stay with us, there is still much more we want to do. It’s just a matter of time, money, and resources. But with the help of generous donors, we can continue to increase the programs and services for children. We could also use more volunteers with a background in child development or child care—or retired school teachers who might have an hour or two each week to help with homework or read to the children. There are so many ways for the community to get involved and help these kids cope with the trauma they are facing. We invite you to join us in these efforts.”

If you’d like to learn about ways you can get involved and help support the women and children who stay at the Mission, please visit

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of our guests.

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