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One woman's odyssey to help homeless kids

By Marilyn Gardner / October 25, 2006



When Diane Nilan, a tireless advocate for homeless children, sent out invitations for an October fundraiser in Naperville, Ill., she included an unusual request: Please send a picture of your childhood home, along with brief memories about what that home meant.

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As 80 supporters gathered for the benefit dinner last night, those pictures were flashed on a screen. Whether grand or modest, brick or frame, urban or rural, each house offered a silent, touching testament to the fundamental need for a stable place to live.

"When you start thinking about your childhood home, it's hard to think of kids who don't have one," Ms. Nilan says. "Everybody deserves a home."

That simple statement has served as Nilan's credo for 20 years. Formerly a shelter director in Aurora, Ill., she made a dramatic change last year. She sold her house, bought a 27-foot RV and a video camera, and took to the road. Her mission: To make a documentary about homeless children in small towns, rural communities, and affluent resort areas.

Her eight-month odyssey took her through 34 states. By the time she returned to Illinois, she had logged 20,000 miles.

As she traveled, Nilan interviewed children and young people between the ages of 5 and 24, all homeless or formerly homeless. She listened to heartbreaking stories of uprooted families who did not know how or where they would again have a roof of their own. A family typically needs $1,500 to $2,000 to cover the first and last months' rent plus security deposit. Most small towns have no shelters.

By the most conservative estimates, 1.5 million children in the United States lack a secure address, Nilan says. Families account for an estimated 40 percent of all homeless people.

Some families lose their moorings because of heavy medical bills. "Debt disasters are a fast track to homelessness," Nilan says. In other cases, housing problems stem from a parent's past drug conviction. "You can't get into public housing with that," she says. Still others have been burned out. Families struggling to find housing are often headed by a divorced or single parent, Nilan notes.

She tells of one mother, a registered nurse from a rural community in northern Illinois, who lost her nursing license because she defaulted on a student loan. She and her daughter became homeless. The daughter, an athlete, couldn't get medical help for a knee injury because they lacked health insurance.

Some teenagers who can no longer live with their families – "unaccompanied youths" – are reduced to what they call "couch surfing." They sleep on one friend's couch for a while, then move to another friend's house, then another's.

Despite these daunting challenges, some homeless teens stay in school. "I saw a great run of kids graduating from high school," Nilan says. "It's very inspiring. They say, 'Here's my diploma.' "

Whatever the cause of homelessness, part of the solution, as Nilan sees it, depends on more federal dollars for housing. "Families are now pretty well being ignored by the federal government," she says, noting that the Department of Housing and Urban Development no longer counts homeless families if they are in motels, doubled up with others, or in non-HUD-funded shelters.

As one way of bringing attention to homeless children and families, Nilan has formed an advocacy group called HEAR US (www.hearus.us). Elsewhere, other support is coming from a new national initiative to help homeless mothers and children. Launched by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the $11.2 million effort will begin by focusing on Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

A childhood home, with a fixed address, protecting walls, and a warm bed, ranks as the most basic of necessities. As pictures of guests' early homes filled the screen during Nilan's benefit dinner last night, those attending could not have missed the basic message she delivers again and again: "Let's not just talk about ending homelessness. Everybody deserves a home. So let's talk about making that happen."

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