In November of 2005, homelessness activist Diane Nilan packed her life into an RV and began traveling the United States to promote awareness about homelessness. She has helped homeless families across the country through legislative advocacy, emergency assistance, her non-profit HEAR US: Voice and Visibility for Homeless Children, and by producing documentary films that examine the unseen lives of homeless people.
At a panel held last Wednesday entitled “Perspectives on Poverty and Social Change,” Nilan spoke alongside Oberlin College faculty and community members on the current status of poverty and homelessness in the United States, particularly in Lorain County.
Panelists included Linda Arbogast, Executive Director of Oberlin Community Services (OCS), Associate Dean Adrian Bautista, Sociology Professor Clovis White, and Nilan herself. Tania Boster, Program Coordinator at the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, moderated the panel.
Panelists addressed what Nilan calls “invisible homelessness,” which goes beyond traditional conceptions of homelessness to include the larger majority of families and children who move from location to location, or are living with other families but lack stable housing.
She explained, “The number of people who still attribute homelessness to the scroungy guy standing on the corner is…I’d say 80 percent.”
Nilan pointed out the misconception that homeless people are substance abusers or sex offenders. She said popular prejudices like these hinder the process of advocating outreach for homeless people.
Professor White noted that in recent years, the economic downturn has distracted from the problem of homelessness altogether.
Arbogast added that a prevailing struggle for OCS has been shrinking funds as need for those funds grows. A fourth of the population in the City of Oberlin live below the poverty line, and 54 percent of public school students now receive free or reduced lunch, with numbers continuing to increase. Services like emergency assistance provided by OCS and the homeless shelters that Nilan works with are more of a “band-aid” fix than a structural adjustment for impoverished people, but with dwindling funds, they have to settle.
Nilan first became interested in the problem of homelessness awareness when she noticed a woman in overalls wondering around in Joliet, Illinois, her home at the time. She became curious and learned that the woman was homeless and mentally ill. Soon after, she began working with Catholic charities.
While working at a ministry in Aurora, Illinois, Nilan was asked to head the overnight shelter.
“I got sort of pushed into helping homeless people because I was the only person that didn’t have a lot of other things to do,” she said, joking that her philosophy degree was not going to be much help. Twenty-five years later, she is a practiced homelessness activist.
In order to eliminate barriers against homeless children going to school, Nilan ushered a law through the Illinois General Assembly in 1994. The federal law on homeless assistance at the time was from the Reagan era and offered no protections for homeless children’s education. The Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, or “Charlie’s Bill,” named after a young homeless boy, passed with bipartisan support in 1994. “It was our dream bill and it got passed,” said Nilan.
Nilan later played an important role in advocating for a piece of legislation at the federal level that would broaden the definition of homelessness to protect homeless education nationwide. The bill, called the Mckinney-Vento Act, passed in 2001 as part of No Child Left Behind. The Mckinney-Vento Act expanded on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) narrow definition of homelessness to include those who live in public spaces, cars, shelters, hotels, move from one place of housing to another, or live with others as a result of financial problems or a loss of housing. The Department of Education now uses that definition to secure education for homeless children; HUD’s narrower definition remains an obstacle for homeless people.
To further raise awareness about homelessness, Nilan produced a documentary. Her inspiration came from working with Illinois schools to ensure that the Mckinney-Vento Act was carried out in their districts.
“Talking to educators and superintendents, I realized that they very much didn’t know about homeless families at all,” Nilan said.
Hoping to capture the stories of homeless children, Nilan sold her townhouse and car and began travelling in “Tillie the Turtle,” her nick-named RV. In November of 2005, she hit the road. “It’s very humbling to just say to yourself, well, I’m out here,” she said.
Nilan interviewed 75 homeless children nationwide and covered 20,000 miles on her first trip. “I just thought, interview the kids, let them talk about it,” she said.
When Nilan returned to Illinois she collaborated with Laura Vasquez, a professor at Northern Illinois University to create “My Own Four Walls,” a film about homeless children and students. Their second film, “On The Edge,” came out this year and explores the lives of homeless women and their children.
“She’s the film guru, and I’m the homelessness guru and we share knowledge, so it’s a great collaboration.”
For more information on Nilan’s work with HEAR US, visit www.hearus.us