Driven to tell the stories of America’s forgotten homeless

Diane Nilan lives in her van. It’s a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter with about 160,000 miles. The cargo space has been outfitted to accommodate her basic needs. From that 24-foot vehicle, Nilan tells the stories of America’s homeless.

She’s been on the road for the past 15 years, documenting the plight of those who live in shelters, on the street, in overcrowded apartments, in motels and in abandoned buildings, and those who sleep in cars and storage units or who couch surf, hopping from one transitional house to another seeking a place to lay their heads at night.

It’s not glorious work, but it’s her mission.

Diane Nilan is founder and president of HEAR US, Inc., an organization that calls attention to the millions of families with children experiencing homelessness.

“I try to go out of my way to see what no one else will see,” Nilan, 70, told me last week. “I go looking for poverty. It validates my premise that there are a lot of people being forgotten in this country.”

Nilan worked as a director for various homeless shelters in Illinois for 15 years before branching out across America in November 2005. During her shelter years, she began advocating for the removal of barriers that homeless families experienced when trying to enroll their children in school.  

Illinois was on the cutting edge of addressing the desperate need for homeless students to find their way into schools without delay. For many of these kids, school serves as a beacon of emotional and educational stability, and also as a source of food, warmth and comfort. Yet parents who lacked a proof of residence — or immunization, medical and academic records for their children — were turned away.

An estimated 568,000 people experienced homelessness in a single night in the United States in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report presented to Congress in January. But Nilan said that number is grossly underestimated. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, the number of homeless children enrolled in public schools — prekindergarten through grade 12 — topped 1.5 million during the 2017-18 school year.

Diane Nilan is founder and president of HEAR US, Inc., an organization that calls attention to the millions of families with children experiencing homelessness.

The disparity exists because HUD accounts only for the number of individuals in shelters and on the streets on one night. Nilan is lobbying for that to change. If HUD adjusts its definition of homelessness to align with the Department of Education’s housing policies, social services and health care could be constructed to address how to best help families get back on their feet when they encounter hardships, particularly as Americans are being financially ravaged by COVID-19. 

The Education Department defines and tracks homeless youth as those lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” including those who are living on the street or in unsheltered places, but also those who reside in shelters, hotels or motels, campgrounds, and those who are what is commonly referred to as “doubled up” — families trying to coexist with friends or relatives in close quarters. All state school districts are required to provide liaisons who offer support to those students and families.

Children are among the desperately poor homeless who live on Los Angeles' Skid Row, which have been hurt by the teachers' strike. Here are two enjoying a meal last month at a holiday feast event.

Nilan, founder and president of HEAR US, Inc., has been traveling the country — 400,000 miles of mostly backroads through 48 mainland states, and Hawaii (she didn’t drive there) — interviewing families and producing documentaries. In 2005, she sold her townhouse, bought a 27-foot RV (she downsized to the van six years ago) and a video camera, and hit the road. She’s been driving and telling stories ever since — until this spring when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. Before being grounded by COVID-19, she set out for a 2020 VisionQuest, a 9,000-mile journey across 25 states.

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Nilan said of her decision to pick up and take her advocacy on the road.  “I was rewarded instantly from such powerful stories from kids and their parents.”

I have been working in this field for more than 30 years and I thought I understood what contributed to homelessness,” Nilan told me. “I thought I knew what the pitfalls were that caused families to become homeless. There are so many ways families get trapped into homelessness, and most people don’t understand it. When they are trapped, they are really, really trapped.”

And now, a little about me …

I am the new national columnist for USA TODAY. In many ways, Diane Nilan is an inspiration. She is putting in the work. She refuses to sit back and watch as people suffer. She’s advocating and educating. That is the work I do as a journalist; it’s what I intend to do in this position. I might write about politics, education, poverty, racial issues, pop culture, sports or the environment, but it always will be on behalf of those usually missing from the conversation.

Like Nilan, I will challenge the policies and the people who have marginalized Americans. I will give voice to those who have been forgotten or intentionally ignored.   

Columnist Suzette Hackney, left, with Latasha Sanders, who was homeless.

But first, let me tell you a little about me. It’s only fair. I am a Midwesterner through and through. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, graduated from Michigan State University and have spent the bulk of my career in Detroit. I was a reporter for 17 years in the Motor City covering a range of beats, including city hall, criminal justice and urban affairs. For the past five years, I have worked as a columnist at The Indianapolis Star exploring issues affecting Central Indiana residents and writing about extraordinary Hoosiers.

I am a voracious reader. I enjoy my time in the gym (pre-COVID-19). I can cook anything you request, from soul food to Asian cuisine. I have a lovely garden — kale, collards, beets, rainbow chard, tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. I’m obsessed with my two nephews and have watched them grow from babies to men.

I am a professional photographer — in my mind. I have been pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from Butler University, and I am currently writing my thesis. Traveling the world and experiencing other cultures fills my soul. I have a nasty addiction to live music, especially to the Dave Matthews Band. I love journalism and feel blessed to still be doing the only job I ever wanted. 

Although I have this amazing new opportunity with USA TODAY, I will remain in Indianapolis for now. I’m not comfortable trying to move during a pandemic, and I have yet to figure out where I want to land next. Because I’ve spent so much time in the Midwest, I do want to explore another region of our country. My primary mission though, is to travel America and tell the stories that need to be told.

Are there people in your community making a difference? Is your neighbor accomplishing extraordinary things or navigating what may seem like insurmountable obstacles? Do you have a story to share? My goal is to connect with people through their stories. I want to hear from you.

Email columnist Suzette Hackney at shackney@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.

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