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updated: 3/31/2011 6:54 AM

Former Aurora resident becomes a voice for the homeless

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  • Diane Nilan, founder and president of the Naperville-based nonprofit "Hear Us," spoke about the plight of homeless families and children in a congressional briefing Wednesday in Washington, D.C. She also screened her documentary, "On the Edge," about homeless families.

      Diane Nilan, founder and president of the Naperville-based nonprofit "Hear Us," spoke about the plight of homeless families and children in a congressional briefing Wednesday in Washington, D.C. She also screened her documentary, "On the Edge," about homeless families.
    Nicole Thompson | Staff Photographer

  • Diane Nilan

    Diane Nilan

 
By Nicole Thompson

When most people think of homelessness, the image that comes to mind is of "a grizzly man on a city street," says Diane Nilan.

This is not exactly what she sees.

Nilan is the president and founder of Hear Us, a Naperville-based nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of homeless youth and families. She lived in Aurora for 40 years before trading in her residence for a motor home in 2005 to travel the country interviewing homeless families and children, with a goal of showcasing a side of homelessness in America that most people don't see.

On Wednesday, she had a chance to show them.

Nilan traveled to Washington, D.C., where she spoke at a congressional briefing and held a private screening of a documentary made from the interviews she conducted during her travels. In attendance were U.S. representatives, congressional and senatorial staff, reporters and other advocates. Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, also attended the screening.

"This is my dream opportunity," Nilan said.

Nilan's efforts focus on what she calls the "invisible" homeless -- families forced to double-bunk with others or at churches, families living in motels, and youth on the streets. She says she even observed these issues during her time in Aurora.

Her documentary, "On the Edge," produced with Northern Illinois University professor Laura Vazquez, features emotional stories of seven women who have experienced homelessness.

During the 2008-09 school year, the Department of Education recorded more than 930,000 homeless children in public schools, a 38 percent increase over the previous year. Estimates for the 2009-10 school year are expected to be even higher as the economic downturn continues to affect millions of American families.

The stereotype of homelessness "gives some people the excuse they need to not care, which is sad," Nilan said. "It has eliminated any attention and resources to the issue. Congress doesn't understand how vast this problem is."

Nilan aimed to show them.

Rep. Judy Biggert. a Hinsdale Republican as well as Nilan's congresswoman, led Wednesday's congressional briefing as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness and hosted the documentary screening.

Biggert has been an advocate for policies that assist homeless youth since her days in the Illinois legislature. In 1994, she voted in support of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, which identified the problem of homeless youth and helped get them to school. Biggert helped pass similar legislation on the national level in 2001 in the form of the McKinney-Vento Act.

When Nilan gave Biggert a tour of the homeless shelter she worked at in 1998, Biggert asked what she could do to help, and Nilan responded by asking her to get national legislation passed to help homeless children attend school.

"She said she would do it and she absolutely did, and in a way that was so impressive," Nilan said, in reference to the McKinney-Vento Act. "Ever since then, she has been a champion for homeless youth. She's been astounding in her support."

On Wednesday, Biggert announced a push to keep homeless kids in school and better meet the educational needs of the fast-growing population of homeless youth by introducing the Educational Success for Children and Youth Without Homes Act. It is designed to update and build upon the McKinney-Vento programs. Biggert says she expects the plan to receive a vote on the House floor, either as stand-alone legislation or as part of broader legislation revamping the nation's K-through-12 education guidelines.

Now, with every federally funded program on the chopping block, Nilan and other advocates worry about the fate of funding to help the homeless.

"It certainly makes me quite nervous to hear about some of the cuts," Nilan said.

After Wednesday night's screening of "On the Edge," an emotional HUD Secretary Donovan explained how hard it's been to fund programs without a budget in place.

Still, Nilan remains optimistic.

"I think that cooler heads can prevail if people understand a little bit more about the need," she said. "I really would have just a very hard time understanding how they could cut what is vitally important for a family's survival."

Donovan went on to say, even with the impending budget cuts, HUD is looking to increase funding to its program by 30 percent.