'THEY ARE OUT THERE AND THEY ARE SUFFERING': Illinoiss woman makes it her mission to raise awareness of child, family homelessness
Diane Nilan is a woman on a mission. That mission is to create a “compassion epidemic” that will make people more aware of the plight of homeless children and families.
“In most all communities, they are invisible,” said Nilan starting the second leg of her HEAR US 2020 Vision Quest Tour across America. “We see homeless adults wandering and living on the streets, but we don’t see the families and the children. Trust me, they are out there and they’resuffering.”
The founder and president of HEAR US Inc., Nilan spoke at the January luncheon of Helping Florence Flourish at First Presbyterian Church. She has three decades of experience running and managing homeless shelters near her home in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, Il. That experience of serving and caring for the homeless led Nilan to a pivotal moment in her life 15 years ago.
In 2005, Nilan found the non-profit HEAR US, Inc. Its mission is to give voice and visibility to children and youth experiencing homelessness. After being awarded a grant to make a short documentary about homelessness, she bought a small motor home, packed her bags and hit the road. She began traveling from town to town across America to speak to church and civic groups on behalf of homeless children and families. Along the way, she has logged in some 300,000 miles while writing several books and producing numerous award-winning documentary films.
Last year she envisioned and then embarked on a 9,000-mile, 25-state trip along U.S. Route 20 in the northern U.S. and Interstate 20 in the south. She began the journey on July 20 and spent the last half of 2019 completing the first half of the quest.
On Jan. 20, in front of the Helping Florence Flourish crowd, the 69-year-old Nilan accepted the microphone from the Rev. Chris Handley and officially began the second leg of the tour.
She said one problem she faces nearly everywhere she speaks is that people don’t fully understand what homelessness means. She said adults who sleep on the streets of major cities are the most visible, but homelessness is prevalent and a growing problem everywhere, including in rural areas. Nilan said a majority of our nation’s homeless are families. She believes there may be as many as 6.5 million homeless children in America.
She said there is a big misconception on what it means to be “homeless.” They are not necessarily sleeping in the streets or in shelters, she said, pointing out that displaced families will sometimes “couch-surf’ with friends, live in motels or in vehicles. Not all homeless parents are unemployed, Nilan insisted. Many struggle to make ends meet any way they can to keep their children in school.
Her films are poignant and sometimes heart wrenching. She showed her film “Desperate in Oregon” to the Helping Florence Flourish crowd. Filmed in Portland she speaks to numerous people living in shelters or on the streets. An 11-year-old girl named Sonya who has moved from place-to-place with her mother and younger sister for more than a year, says, “My mom needs a lot of help and nobody is helping her.” She goes on to say that she wants people to know that “just because we are homeless doesn’t mean we are dirty or gross, or we are going to steal from you.”
Nilan’s films are available on the Hear Us website, www.hearus.us.
Looking back over her travels, Nilan said the faces of the homeless change from state to state, but their stories remain the same. She said most of the homeless people she has met have been more than happy to share their stories because they believe it will help others.
She said the best way for anyone to help the homeless in their community is to get involved and to speak out. Take time to get to know the people and their stories.
“They really are no different than you or I,” she said. “Start from a position of love, knowing that none of us are perfect. If love is our standard, we will be much better off. Love is the answer.”