Giving voice to the homeless is more than a cause to Diane Nilan, it has become her life’s work. Traveling around the United States, Nilan documents the stories of those who are homeless, making sure that they are heard and not forgotten.
Nilan founded HEAR US in 2005 and since then has been traveling the country with the mission of raising awareness of the plight of the homeless and encouraging actions to bring it to an end. Through her interviews with homeless families and youths, she has produced films that shed light on what it is like to be homeless in America.
After she founded HEAR US, Nilan sold her townhome, most of her possession and packed her life into an RV named Tillie the turtle. She set out on the road to see America, meet with the homeless and share their stories. Since taking to the road she has visited 48 states and logged 140,000 miles on Tillie, she said.
Nilan was in Georgia earlier this week when contacted for this interview and was scheduled to head to North Carolina, she said.
A life of social justice
Her work with HEAR US started in 2005, but her views on social justice were formed as a child, Nilan said.
“I think it’s who I am and who I have been as I take time to look back at my life,” Nilan said during a phone interview. “As a kid, it was always feeling a terrible sense of injustice about the inequities of me in my comfortable middle class upbringing and people who had nothing. It started back then. I have a history of working with people who are disenfranchised.”
In the mid-1980s while working for Catholic Chairities in Joliet, Nilan was charged with the task of trying to find ways to end homelessness for the people who were seeking help from Catholic Chairities.
“I was the least burdened person there at a time when homelessness was just starting to boom,” she said.
She helped launch Will County PADS, now known as the Daybreak Center, and over several years, she began to better understand the systemic causes of homelessness, she said.
“I can’t say it’s ever been just a job,” Nilan said. “It’s been a mission to try to alleviate the sufferings of people who are in a homeless situation, and also to create change.”
To film or not to film?
HEAR US came to be after Nilan was working to educate school districts in the eight collar counties about implementing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. She had been awarded grant funding to do a film of children talking about what it is like to be homeless. She had a film crew ready to come and do the filming when she learned her position was being cut.
“I was faced with a realization that the film we were about to make could have a profound impact on how people saw the face of homelessness and also help kids get into school,” she said. “I thought ‘Diane you are either going to do the film or not do the film.’ I decided to sell my townhouse and buy the motor home.”
Carrying the stories with her
As she travels the United States, the stories are often similar and homelessness is everywhere in every community, Nilan said. When she screens her movies, and holds discussions she finds that many people still have the stereotypical view of a homeless person being an alcoholic man, but that is not the case.
“I’ve seen a horrible increase in the numbers of families and youth who have become homeless,” she said. “It is hitting people who never thought they would be homeless. You just see there a number of causes of homelessness and it’s never one thing. And, it’s painful to see that we are all so close to becoming homeless. Seeing the economy — that it has not corrected itself for people at the bottom of the ladder who are being stomped upon.”
One of the project’s Nilan is working on seeks to document the plight of the “Littlest Nomads," children ages 0-5 who are homeless, “probably the most ignored and dire of the homeless population,” she said.
When she meets with the homeless families and children, Nilan conducts the interviews and does the filming herself. She then works with Laura Vasquez, a professor at Northern Illinois University who teaches filmmaking, to edit and create the films.
She carries the photos of every person she has interviewed with her in her RV, she said. Some of the stories stand out more than others, like that of a single mother in Reno, Nevada who had three young girls and a newborn. Nilan met the family at a church shelter and the girls told her they hoped they would be able to stay where they were because they had moved around so much. But, an altercation at the shelter forced the family to leave and they were placed on a bus for California.
“How broken that must feel and how powerless,” Nilan said.
“The stories are horribly hard to hear, but I guess I internalize it in a way to fuel my passion for advocacy,” she said. “I can’t hear these stories and not want for things to change. So, you know I feel each story I hear is just another reason to continue fighting to make sure people have a place to stay so that they at least survive if not thrive. I get inspired by the courage the kids and adults have if they can go through the hell that they go through and get up each day and keep trying.”
Nilan pays for Tillie’s operation, but she does get help to pay for gasoline through HEAR US, she said. People make donations to the nonprofit and also buy DVDs and books through the organization. She also recently won a $5,000 gas card from Citgo, which is helping to offset her travel costs.
As she continues her work and her travels, Nilan said she maintains a sense of hope for what she does. She also is thankful for the work Rep. Judy Biggert has done to champion the plight of the homeless and homeless youth.
“When I see someone doing something for a population that is not in her self-interest, I know there is goodness out there,” Nilan said. “I have to work for justice and I appreciate others who are doing the same.”
Next month Bridge Communities will honor Nilan for her humanitarian work at its Celebrating Women…Transforming Lives luncheon.
Her RV is her home 24-7-365, she said, and her moving from place to place does offer her a “minute” sense of what it is to be homeless, she said.
“What has changed about me? I went from 1,100 square feet of living space to about 100 feet and I had to cope with stuff and lack thereof, and what do I need and what is important,” she said. “It’s a process that has forced me to simplify my life. I can’t just buy stuff to buy stuff. If I buy a book I get rid of a book, if I buy a pair of jeans I get rid of something else. I’ve become an admirer of the tiny house movement. I have become confident living a more simplified lifestyle and I wish more people could move into that mode.”