Homeless children tell their stories
'My Own Four Walls' documents young lives wanting a place to call home.
As the children projected onto the screen tell what it's like to be homeless, Bambi Jackson wipes tears from her eyes. She works with families in Boston every day who face housing crises. But there's something about these – a boy's complaint that a shelter is "just not cozy" or a girl's description of how scary it is to start over at a new school – that strikes deep.Skip to next paragraph
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The short documentary, "My Own Four Walls," encapsulates one woman's mission to ease and end homelessness, which affects well over 1 million children and their families each year in the United States. Traveling more than 20,000 miles in an RV that she bought after selling her townhouse, Diane Nilan visited small towns and cities to listen to 75 children's stories. Now she's on the road again to share what they so bravely shared with her. The name of the nonprofit organization she formed doubles as a demand: HEAR US (www.hearus.us).
"Homeless children are a pretty invisible population," says Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Washington. "Once you see them and hear what they have to say ... you see the pain and trauma they experience.... [The documentary] makes it real and powerful in a way that reading a report doesn't."
Ms. Duffield has been bringing along the documentary to Capitol Hill as she lobbies for improvements to a portion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act known in short as McKinney-Vento. The law defines homelessness broadly to include students staying in motels or in overcrowded, substandard homes because they can't afford appropriate housing. Each school district must have a liaison to help such children gain prompt access to public school, preferably their original school, even if they move somewhat beyond the district's borders. Experts say that with each school move, learning is set back an average of four to six months.
While the McKinney-Vento budget has been fixed for the past three years, Duffield says, the number of public school students identified as homeless increased 50 percent between 2003-04 and 2005-06, to about 914,000 (with 8 out of 10 school districts reporting). Some of the growth was because of hurricanes, but about half was in non-hurricane states, she says, and it likely represents both a growing number of homeless families and an improvement in schools' ability to identify them.
One woman's mission
As a former shelter director and school-liaison trainer in Illinois, Ms. Nilan tapped into a network of liaisons during her travels through Florida, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and a number of other states, always via back roads.
She tells her story in her 27-foot trailer parked in a campground south of Boston, her flushed cheeks hinting at her zeal. "I feel like I have 75 bosses! These kids are counting on me," she says, pulling out a poster with a colorful grid of faces. "I promised them: 'I will do everything I can to make your voices heard and your faces seen.' "
That's meant she hasn't had much time for campfires as she's worked 10- to 12-hour days. Whenever she started to wonder if she were crazy for voluntarily giving up her home to try to end homelessness, she'd glance up at a small photo of two young sisters she met at a shelter, and their smiles would keep her going. She's even happy to be stuck in traffic on occasion, because it gives people time to check out the huge posters promoting her cause on the back of her RV.
After six months of filming last year, Nilan teamed up with Laura Vazquez, a media production professor at Northern Illinois University, to put together the video. The pair is now planning a full-length documentary on families on the edge of homelessness.
Importance of school to homeless