Hear Us—Giving a Voice to Homeless Children and Youth
In November 2005, Diane Nilan sold her house in Aurora, bought a new motorhome she named “Tillie” and set off with a camcorder to document the stories of the homeless across the country. She never dreamed that 10 years later she would be celebrating the anniversary of her Naperville-based, nonprofit organization, HEAR US.
HEAR US produces creative projects like books and documentaries to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. Nilan is a tireless videographer, author, and speaker who is passionate about changing the paradigm of homelessness from the stereotypical bedraggled man on the urban street, to the more prevalent one of a mother with children, desperately clinging to survival.
“I wanted to defy people’s stereotypes about the homeless by finding them everywhere, in rural areas, resort communities, small towns, and mid-size cities,” Nilan said. She has logged nearly 150,000 miles throughout all 48 contiguous states, inviting homeless families to share their personal stories on video. She has also won numerous awards for her efforts, including the Naperville Kids’ Best Friend Award and the Bridge Communities Transforming Women Award for DuPage County.
Progress Through Projects
With the help of Laura Vazquez, a professor of Media Studies at Northern Illinois University, Nilan’s first cross-country trek resulted in a documentary titled “My Own Four Walls.” The movie features Nilan’s raw footage of homeless children, of all ages, sharing their desire for stable housing and education. The documentary is one of many film projects produced by HEAR US and shared with educators, faith, and service organizations to raise awareness and sensitivity of homelessness. Nilan is also the author of “Crossing the Line: Taking the Steps to End Homelessness,” and is currently filming the new documentary, “Worn Out Welcome Mat,” which highlights doubling-up as a homeless problem in Texas.
“About 75 percent of homeless families in this country are not counted because they are not on the streets or in shelters. Even areas like Naperville have many homeless families but they are invisible,” she said. “They are bouncing from relative to relative, doubling-up, or living in motels from day-to-day. Being invisible makes it harder for them to get the help that they need.”
Nilan has always been service-oriented, which she credits to her early education with the Joliet Franciscan sisters, but her early work as a program and associate director at Hesed House in Aurora opened her eyes to the specific problems of homeless children as it relates to the education system. When a boy named Charlie was denied the right to attend his original school after his relocation to a shelter in a different school district, Nilan actively lobbied for and helped pass Charlie’s Law officially known as the Education for Homeless Children Act of 1994, which grants homeless children the right to attend their school of origin. Illinois was the first state to enact this groundbreaking legislation, which served as a model for later amendments to the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
THE ROAD AHEAD
As Nilan prepares to mark the 10-year anniversary of HEAR US, she is keenly aware that there is much more to do. “Until we change the way we look at homelessness in this country, we won’t make an impact on the family and youth experiencing it,” she said.
Meanwhile, she is grateful for a personal inheritance that enabled her to purchase a newer, more eco-friendly RV. She fittingly named it “Tillie 2” and expects it’ll help her advance HEAR US’s mission into the next decade.