Off the Cuff with Diane Nilan, Homeless Rights Advocate

Diane Nilan, activist for homeless rights and awareness, visited Oberlin this week to participate on the panel “Perspectives on Poverty and Social Change.” Nilan’s recent documentary On The Edge provides a firsthand look at the experience of homeless women and families in the United States.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do and how you were inspired to do it?

Now I’m making documentary films. I also do presentations, write and do photography, so I try to combine all of those to create a cohesive message about homeless children and family. That’s kind of my overall focus. I was inspired by just working with school districts and trying to get them to implement theMcKinney-Ventol Homeless Assistance Act. It’s a homeless education act. I became aware that there is a serious lack of understanding about homelessness in schools and began to wonder if there was anything I could do about it. This film, which is my first, was my solution. I wanted to create a film where the kids themselves were talking about what it was like to be homeless.

I read in an article that you use a number of media in your advocacy. How do you use film, blogs and public appearances to combat homelessness?

I use social media like Facebook a lot and tie it in with my blog. There are so few resources that people can use to learn more about homelessness that people don’t even know that they don’t know about it. It’s just a matter of using whatever media possible to get the word out and get people interested. It’s like my friend says — it’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall. If it will stick, it works. So unfortunately, that’s somewhat the strategy.

Why is roughly 39 percent of the homeless population under the age of 18?

I’d say the number is much higher than that. There are a million kids that have been identified in public schools that are homeless. They also have younger siblings. A million is probably half of what is really out there because a lot of schools haven’t really tried to identify homeless kids. There are another million or so of zero to five year olds and then there is the homeless youth population of kids who are on their own, without parents and on the streets. This somewhat overlaps because some of these teens are attending school, but I’d estimate around three million in total. In the film one of the moms talked about how if she goes to a shelter, she can’t live with her kids. They often don’t accept teenagers, especially males. Families get split up by shelter rules and there is also just the issue of family dysfunction. A lot of times kids end up saying, “Hey, I’m out of here.” The sexual orientation of kids can also cause a split in the family. There are many reasons, and I don’t want to lump them all into one: Poverty, lack of housing and of jobs all cause young kids to become homeless, some with parents and some without.

What are the primary causes of homelessness?

With family homelessness, I would say domestic violence and also past experience of abuse, not just within the family structure. When little girls are abused in their town it has a way of catching up with them. Certainly the economy [is a major issue] as well. To support a family with one income is virtually impossible. The so-called welfare system has also been so decimated that there is no family support there for a single parent. It’s very hard to get help. The federal government has also implemented a lot of regulations; if you have bad credit or certain criminal records, you can’t get into subsidized housing. There’s also a lot less subsidized housing today. So when you have all of those things coming together, it’s like a perfect storm that’s created the mess that we have.

Can you tell me about the HEAR US campaign?

That’s actually the name of my organization. I came up with the acronym. It is an acronym even though no one but me knows it. It stands for Homeless Education Awareness Raising in the U.S. I started the organization seven years ago and think the name reflects my desire for homeless people to be heard, not just seen.

How did the panel today aim to encourage academic curiosity about issues of poverty and community engagement?

I didn’t set up the panel so I don’t know exactly, but I was brought on to bring a national perspective. That’s why I asked my question to the audience today about whether there are students here at Oberlin who are homeless — I think it’s something that we don’t think about. I saw people look around and go “Wow, that’s never occurred to me.”

How did you get the idea for the film?

It was basically the idea of Laura Vazquez, who was my video partner in all of this. The first day I met Laura, I was asking her to take a film I shot of homeless kids to make a video. Then she asked whether I’d consider making a film about homeless women. I asked why she would want to do that, because I didn’t know her — it would be like you asking me to make the video. She told me a story about being in her early 20s. She already had a baby and she had an abusive husband. She left him, took the baby and drove across the country with 100 bucks to her name and lived with different people until she got back on her feet. She said she didn’t think that people understood that that was the experience of many families. I heard her and agreed that these stories needed to be told.

How can homelessness be most effectively combated?

I’ve actually put together a starter menu of things people can do. I think a lot of people say, “I want to help, but I don’t know how. I don’t have a lot of money, a lot of time,” whatever. I think supporting local shelters in contributing and volunteering is a great step. But advocacy is also very important — we need people to rattle the cages. It’s really hard to get people to do this. If we wanted to start a campaign on how someone’s cat died, we’d be able to get people interested in that. But that’s not the case for homelessness.

Why do you think that is?

Most people don’t understand homelessness. They fear it’s contagious, that if they get involved in helping then they’ll become homeless themselves. People are mad about so many things going on in the country, and homeless people are often the dog that gets kicked. It’s easy because they can’t fight back.