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.

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

The children in "My Own Four Walls" span the gamut of homelessness – one lost her home to a fire, one was "ditched" by his mother, others simply were evicted because their families couldn't afford the rent – but they all share one thing, Nilan says: "School is so huge to them." For many, it was the one source of stability and friendships.

"The older kids especially saw that getting a college education was so crucial to them avoiding being in situations of homelessness," Nilan says. "To hear these kids talk about what they would do to get through high school and into college, it was stunning.... These kids are going to squeeze every drop of good out of their public education."

Take Beatrice Martinez, interviewed in Las Cruces, N.M., as a high school senior. In the video, Beatrice talks about how she was ashamed of the time that she and her mom were homeless when she was younger. She realizes now, she says, that "it's not who I am, it's what happened to me," and she speaks of going to college, no matter what it takes. "I felt like the room was glowing with determination," Nilan says of her.

"Living in poverty, it was a difficult life, and I don't think a child should grow up in poverty, you know?" Ms. Martinez says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "I realized you need to do something more, you can't just live paycheck to paycheck."

She just finished her first year at New Mexico State University, studying criminal justice and biology with the hopes of becoming a forensic scientist. Scholarships from groups like NAEHCY have so far enabled her to attend without taking out student loans.

To help homeless teens fulfill their college dreams, bipartisan sponsors in Congress introduced the FAFSA Fix for Homeless Kids Act earlier this year. For a long time, it's been difficult for students separated from their parents' financial support to prove they were on their own and get sufficient aid. The law would allow educational liaisons, shelter directors, or financial aid administrators to identify a youth as homeless and unaccompanied.

Watching Nilan's video and hearing about that bill at a recent conference on homeless children in Boston gave Ms. Jackson a new view of her own teenage years. Her mother stopped supporting her when she was 12, and she lived with various people, which she now sees as a form of homelessness.

When it came time to apply for college, she was still expected to include her mother's income on the forms. Jackson says she didn't qualify for sufficient aid until she had her own baby, but that made college difficult in other ways. Now she's determined to show "My Own Four Walls" to fellow staff at the Crittenton Women's Union and to get everyone she knows to support passage of the FAFSA bill.

In Nilan's efforts to raise awareness that homelessness can exist in any type of community, she has shown the video in some affluent school districts. Students there have been particularly moved by one teen boy who graduated from high school while living on the streets. Ben talks about how he'd "press" his clothes by folding them up under his pillow when he slept at night. And then he shows the spot near some bushes where he'd stash his stuff, the very spot where he sat down to gaze upon his diploma on graduation day. Some well-off teens have told Nilan that it makes them think twice about their own unappreciative attitudes about high school.

Nilan returned recently to Reno, Nev., to show the documentary in a community where she had filmed. Gloria Bratiotis, the McKinney-Vento liaison for the surrounding Washoe County School District, says that ever since seeing it, a man who runs a free-clothing center for the homeless "writes every week [saying] 'What do you need now? I cannot get those children out of my mind.' "

Each year, Ms. Bratiotis's district of 67,000 students serves about 1,200 who are homeless. By the fall, "every school advocate will see the film and have it for their staff and faculties.... It's a powerful message, and I think teachers need to be reminded that these children sit in their classrooms."

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