Growing up homeless is new reality for thousands of children in Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) - Recent research suggests the face of homelessness is getting younger every year.

According to the National Network for Youth, in 2017, an estimated 20% of homeless people in America were under the age of 18.

Joyce Lavery, CEO of Nashville's Safe Haven Family Shelter said growing up homeless is the reality many kids are being born into. "They are saying the new face of homelessness is an infant," said Lavery.

The walls of Safe Haven provide shelter for up to ten families at a time.

Lavery said Safe Haven helps nearly 100 families every year.

In 2017, the shelter served 88 families made up of 112 adults, 221 youth, 146 school-aged children and 74 kids younger than school-age.

"Statistically, most homeless families are a single mother with one child or more," said Lavery. "Frankly, it is unacceptable to have these families and children sleeping on the street."

Studies show kids or teens who lack a stable home are often vulnerable to a number of adverse outcomes. Experts say some of those potential outcomes include poverty, hunger, violence, a lack of medical care and a lack of education.

According to the Department of Education, there are close to 4,000 homeless students in Nashville.

"It's children in families who could be sleeping in hotels, motels, couch surfing or living in other people's homes," said Lavery.  "Sometimes that doesn't even count children who are of pre-school age or infants.  It also doesn't include children who have dropped out. So we don't really know the full extent of youth and children homelessness but we know it's a crisis."

Metro Nashville Public Schools' HERO Program works with kids whose families do not have a regular or adequate place to stay.

Education is one of the first goals the staff at Safe Haven has for children.

"If they are school-aged, we need to make sure they are in school. A lot of times, a child has been transient and they haven't been stable at all," she said.

Life on the streets can also be dangerous.

"Some of the young women that end up at homeless shelters will tell us that a block away, there will be people waiting to exploit them," said Derri Smith, CEO and Founder of 'End Slavery Tennessee.'

Smith said one-third of all kids or teens who run away from home are approached by a trafficker within the first 48 hours.

"Human traffickers are master manipulators who are looking for vulnerable people to exploit for their own good," Smith said.  "Who's more vulnerable than a young person who has just run away?"

Smith's organization is one of many local agencies here to help.

"I wish I could talk to every child who is thinking about running away because I realize they are usually running from something horrendous," said Smith.  "But If these kids knew what life on the street could look like, I think they might think twice and look for help from other sources."

Unaccompanied youth, like runaways, are often not included in the homeless population.

No matter the circumstance, Lavery said the growing number of homeless youth in and out of our shelter system is a crisis many local agencies are working to solve one family at a time.

"When we see a family succeed and a young child succeed and grow up to break that cycle of homelessness, it's why we're here."