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Driving to explore homelessness

Diane Nilen's van.
Yvonne Boose
Diane Nilan's van.

A former homeless shelter director noticed that the residents of the shelter needed more than just a home. So she took her fight to Congress. But her journey didn’t end there.

Sixteen years ago Diane Nilan, 71, sold her Aurora home and decided to travel across the country and live in her van all while documenting the stories of homeless individuals.

“I have yet to regret that decision,” she said. “So, you know, looking back, I've traveled over 400,000 miles. I've traveled through 49 states, I've been doing this relentlessly.”

Nilan is a filmmaker, author and the president of Hear Us. This national nonprofit gives homeless individuals the opportunity to tell their stories through films and books.

Nilan was the executive director of Aurora homeless shelter Hesed House from 1990 to 2003. She said in 1993, a mother at the shelter came to her for help because she couldn’t get her children back into the school they had attended. The school would not accept the children because they no longer lived at their old address. But that was because the family had become homeless. This concern led Nilan and a group of other people to go lobby in Springfield.

“We had an issue that was really compelling,” Nilan explained, “kids wanting to stay in their same school with their classmates, the security, the stability, and the fact that these kids were doing well in school and everything.”

She said the nonprofit Hear Us centered their logo around a picture of the little boy named Charlie. And in January 1995, Charlie’s law also known as the Illinois Education of Homeless Children Act of 1994 was passed. It passed on the federal level in 2002. This law gives homeless children the right to continue to attend the school they were enrolled in before their housing status changed.

Nilan said she soon realized that the law didn’t hold much weight if people didn’t know about it.

So, after leaving her position at the homeless shelter she worked on a project that helped school districts in the Chicagoland area understand the new law. While in that position, Nilan said she and a colleague came up with the idea to make a film of children talking about what it was like being homeless and what school meant for them. That project ended in 2005 but the filming didn’t take place.

Diane Nilan
Yvonne Boose
Diane Nilan

Nilan convinced herself that she could do the film on her own. She started her Hear Us organization. She bought a video camera that she didn’t know how to use and purchased a new van.

“I drove out of town going, ‘Diane, you are fricking nuts,’” she said. “But it was it was just one of those things that felt right.”

Nilan captured 50 hours of footage from 75 children and now it was time for her to make the film. She reached out to a professional and was told it would cost her $10,000. That wasn’t in her plan. Nilan was then introduced to someone that could help her.

“And literally, she walks into my office with a box full of tapes. And she said, ‘I've been out recording, and I don't know what to do with all of this.’ And I was like, ‘what?’” explained Northern Illinois University professor and director of undergraduate studies in NIU’s department of Communication Laura Vazquez.

Vazquez said the two were introduced by a colleague at the school.

Vazquez signed up for the challenge presented to her and enlisted the help of her students. The students went the through footage and picked what they thought were the most compelling stories.

“And we finally put together the first film we worked on, which was My Own Four Walls. And that was all testimonies by children of what it was like to lose their homes and to be homeless,” she said. “And, you know, how they miss their things, their pets, how people yelled at them when they weren't used to being yelled at, because they were now in a new place. And the walls were thin.”

Vazquez said as a filmmaker she knew that they needed to do something more compelling.

“These are children telling stories. That doesn't make an argument. That doesn't convince me to change funding. You know, these are kids telling stories,” Vazquez said. “And that was when we decided to go out and talk to moms."

Vazquez joined the journey for Nilan’s next film On the Edge - Family Homelessness in America. The two traveled across the country and interviewed seven homeless mothers.

The relationship helped Nilan learn about filmmaking and Vazquez develop a deeper understanding of what homeless individuals went through.

The two also tackled another education issue that some homeless children faced. They went to Washington D.C. to lobby for an updated Free Application for Federal Student Aid law.

“So now if you're homeless, you can apply for FAFSA funding with the teachers, the homeless liaison signature, you don't need a parent,” she said. “I mean, these kids were telling us stories like ‘my house burned down, and my parents were killed in the fire. And I can't go to college because no one will sign the forms from my loans.'’”

Vazquez said Nilan’s greatest impact on the homeless community has been her success in getting Congress to change laws that affect them.

Nilan has created more films and wrote a book documenting her journey, which she said it hasn’t been an easy one.

She said sometimes she runs out of mental gas but the relationships she’s developed over the years keep her going.

Nilan will be 72 years old this August and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“If my van lasts, I'll continue doing this for a lot longer, because you know, there's stories to be told and I've got people asking me to come and do this.”

Nilan is starting a tour for her book “Dismayed and Driven.” She said the organization is working with members of Congress to get the Homeless Children and Youth Act passed. She said the public can help by reaching out to their representatives about the bill. Nilan reminds everyone that elected officials are there to help the community and constituents should lean on them when they see a change that needs to be made.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.