Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Homeless Kids Offer Reality Check to Congress

Photo (C) Pat Van Doren, HEAR US
[Naperville, IL 12/13/11] Domestic violence. Poverty. Poor housing conditions. Disaster. These and other critical issues will be front and center on Thursday to members of the U.S. House of Representative's Financial Services Subcommittee, chaired by Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-13,IL) as members consider barriers for homeless families and youth seeking help.

Children and youth who have experienced homelessness will be the key testifiers as the committee considers the implementation of new HUD regulations that many advocates feel will cause even more hardship for homeless families and youth. HEAR US Inc., a national Naperville-based nonprofit, will participate in the event. Diane Nilan, HEAR US president, invited an 11-year-old boy to share the story of his family's nomadic existence.

Mrs. Biggert has championed the cause of homeless children and youth since being elected to Congress in 1998, leading the way for passage of comprehensive legislation, based on the IL Education for Homeless Children Act, that removes barriers commonly encountered by homeless kids trying to get an education. She's introduced HR 32 to change the way HUD defines homelessness. She and Nilan have worked together on this issue for over a dozen years.

Since November 2005, Nilan, under the banner of her nonprofit HEAR US, has been on the road chronicling homelessness, concentrating on non-urban families and youth. She and Professor Laura Vazquez, NIU School of Communication, have made several documentaries on this issue. Nilan will again set off, stopping in DC on Thursday, then heading south for her 7th cross-country journey. Nilan lives in, works out of and travels solo in her road-weary motorhome.

An uncharacteristic amount of attention is being focused on the soaring growth of homelessness and poverty. The National Center on Family Homelessness released their report homeless families indicating at least 1.6 million children now experience homelessness. 

And Thursday, 12/15, the U. S. Conference of Mayors issues their assessment of homelessness and hunger. Nilan led a campaign to strengthen this highly-cited report, which according to her, relies on abysmally inaccurate data that complies with the very narrow HUD definition of homelessness. "It will be the same old, same old report," she fears.

# # #

Monday, November 28, 2011

Big Victory for the Little Folks!

[Naperville, IL, Dec. 9, 2011] Over 1,500 agencies from across the country competed for the $5,000 CITGO gas card in their Fueling Good contest. Naperville-based national nonprofit HEAR US Inc., likely the smallest of them all, certainly the one most needing this tailor-made prize, claimed victory along with 11 other organizations. On Weds., Dec. 14, CITGO officials will present HEAR US with the prize.

"We are ecstatic," exclaimed Diane Nilan, HEAR US president and founder. Nilan, for the past 6 years, has traveled over 130,000 mostly backroads miles chronicling the plight of homeless families, living and working out of Tillie, her gas-hungry motorhome. Nilan and her board rustled up over 2,500 votes to win the gas prize. "We have lots of friends nationwide, and people believe in our mission," giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth.

The CITGO contest was brought to Nilan's attention by a Naperville friend, Melanie Swiger Murphy, who figured this would be a perfect fit. Nilan hammered reminders on the HEAR US Facebook page. Her board enlisted, well, nagged, family friends and associates. "We're not the type of agency that can pull off huge fundraising events," said Nilan, "but we're scrappy and hard-working! And people love what we do and are willing to help."

After CITGO reps present Nilan with the gas cards on Weds., Dec. 14, at 10:00 a.m. at the Highland CITGO, 702 S. Washington St. in Naperville, Nilan will hop behind the wheel and make tracks to Washington, DC for a hearing on child homelessness organized by Congresswoman Judy Biggert. She'll gas up first, powered by the surge of support of countless people across the country.

# # #

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Homelessness Film Heading to National Broadcast, Scheduled for Aurora Screening

[Naperville, IL, 11/28/11] Take a good film and make it better! The award-winning documentary on the edge, heading for national broadcast, required local filmmakers to hone their already-acclaimed film. The enhanced version will enjoy a Fox Valley premiere screening on Dec. 5, 7 pm at Aurora's Rosary High School in the McEnroe Auditorium.

Film producer Diane Nilan, who previously ran the homeless shelter at Hesed House, has been invited to Rosary as part of their Human Rights week activities. Nilan has been on the road for the past 6 years, living in and working out of her modest motorhome, traveling over 130,000 miles of mostly backroads chronicling homelessness. Her Naperville-based national nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc., gives voice and visibility to homeless children and youth.

Laura Vazquez, the film's director, teaches at Northern Illinois University in the communication department. She and Nilan have worked together on several homelessness-awareness films over the past 6 years. Her film expertise combined with Nilan's knowledge of homelessness has gained national attention and respect, opening doors of Congress for film screenings and leading to on the edge being selected for the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts, First Place Faculty Division this April. At September's Naperville Independent Film Festival, a record crowd of nearly 300 people attended the on the edge screening.

Technical improvements, including closed-captioning, will make the film eligible for airing on public television stations nationwide. Nilan promises a huge grassroots campaign to get the film shown on PBS affiliates nationwide. She points out, "The seven women in this film speak for millions of others in similar situations, mostly invisible, struggling with homelessness, trauma and poverty. They must be heard!"

The screening at Rosary will be a joint fundraiser for Mutual Ground, the Fox Valley's domestic violence shelter, and HEAR US. Free-will donations ensure everyone can afford to attend. For more information, visit the HEAR US website (http://hearus.us), or call 630/225-5012.

# # #

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Invisible Homeless Families Not Forgotten

To call attention to hidden homelessness, often plaguing women and kids, Diane Nilan will share her award-winning documentary on the edge, seven women revealing their journeys in and out of homelessness, at a public screening on Monday, December 5,  7 pm, at Rosary High School's McEnroe Auditorium.

Free-will donations will be accepted, divided between Mutual Ground and HEAR US. Download the PDF flier about this event to circulate.

Nilan, former shelter director at Hesed House, points to this year's 2000+ foreclosed upon homeowners and 950+ evicted households in Kane County.  Not all will become homeless, but some will, and it's likely they won't land at shelters in the county, just yet anyhow. "Vulnerable families typically spiral into homelessness, often accompanied by domestic violence," Nilan points out. They're often invisible, many in motels or doubled up with family or friends.

For the past six years, under the banner of her national nonprofit organization HEAR US Inc. Nilan has racked up over 130,000 miles of mostly backroads travel in her motorhome chronicling and calling attention to homelessness. She and Dr. Laura Vazquez, media professor at Northern Illinois University, have teamed up to film and produce documentaries on homeless families and youth. on the edge was recently featured at the Naperville Independent Film Festival and it won first prize at the Broadcasters Education Association festival.

Members of the Human Rights Club at Rosary approached Nilan about showing the hour-long video. She arranged her travel schedule to accommodate the opportunity. She'll address Rosary students Monday morning and will also be speaking to adult education classes at St. Timothy Lutheran church in Naperville Sunday morning, Dec. 4. She then leaves for a 3,000 mile cross-country tour, greatly aided by winning a $5000 CITGO gas card in a recent contest.

Rosary High School is located at 910 N. Edgelawn, Aurora. For more information contact the school at 630/896-8392 or HEAR US, 630/225-5012.

# # #

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Better Than an Oscar!

Getting people to leave their homes on the opening night of the much-awaited fall television season is no easy task, especially to see a documentary about women and children without homes. But close to 300 people came from near and far to watch on the edge, our documentary film in the Naperville Independent Film Festival screened Monday, 9/19, at the venerable Ogden 6 Theater.
Watching the crowd amass was exciting, especially because it was a mixture of people I knew from my days prior to my running the PADS shelter at Hesed House and a considerable slew of folks who responded to Bridge Community’s urging for people to see our award-winning documentary. Having screened our year-old film countless times, I could judge the audience’s engagement by their chuckles, their silence, and their palpable angst as the 7 courageous women in this film shared their heart-wrenching stories of traversing in and out of homelessness.

The opportunity to participate in Naperville's festival was an unplanned opportunity—Glessna and Edmond Coisson attended our HEAR US Inc. tribute to Mary Lou Cowlishaw last October at North Central College. The tribute included the premiere screening of on the edge and resulted in the Coisson’s inviting our film’s director, Laura Vazquez, associate professor of communication at Northern Illinois University, to the festival.

One key reason for the record crowd at the delightfully friendly and refurbished Ogden 6 theater was the push by Bridge Communities to have their current and prospective volunteers and supporters attend prior to their ambitious “Sleep Out Saturday” this year set for Nov. 5th. Bridge leaders rightly figure if more people understand homelessness from homeless families' point of view, compassion and action will ensue.

With what seems to be a growing discord about the need to help families and individuals struggling for survival, the crowd at this film was on the far opposite end of the spectrum. My challenge urging them to participate in a “compassion epidemic” brought cheers instead of jeers. This positive energy gives a huge boost to those of us engaged in helping stave off the devastation of homelessness. My Naperville-based nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc., continues to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth through projects like on the edge.

Little did I know that in November 2005 when I left the Naperville border heading out on my unconventional sojourn—to chronicle faces and voices of homeless kids from across the nation for My Own Four Walls—that I’d be heading out for my 7th cross-country trip and our country would be in an economic quagmire that makes previous times of trouble pale. With the child poverty rate at a record high 22%, dark clouds loom on the horizon, especially for homeless families with toddlers, the subject of our new film, Littlest Nomads (in production).

My journey away from DuPage County begins Monday. Starting tomorrow I’ll be sporting new signage on my road-weary motorhome/office thanks to a generous collaboration with Design Resource Center and FastSigns, both Naperville businesses with a track record of benevolence. I’ll be venturing out to share a message of painful reality—soaring family homelessness at a time of conflicting political will—but I will recall the surge of compassion from the crowd that stepped from their comfort zones and comfortable homes to learn from these seven experts on homelessness. It’s better than an Oscar!

# # #

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Focus on Desperate Situations for Invisible DuPage Homeless Families


Diane Nilan, HEAR US                                  Jennie Gates, Bridge Event Manager         
630/267-5424                                                  630/545-0610, ext. 19            
diane@hearus.us                                                          Jennie.Gates@BridgeCommunities.org


Sitting on the corner of a sagging mattress in a “no-tell-motel” between two DuPage County towns, Diane Nilan listened to the logistical nightmare spelled out by parents of the 5 children crammed in this too-small room. No stranger to the plight of homeless families, she now shares these stories on the big screen, proud to be part of the 4th Annual Naperville Independent Film Festival.

On Monday night, Sept. 19, the award-winning documentary on the edge, which Nilan and Professor Laura Vazquez of Northern Illinois University filmed and produced, will fill the screen at Ogden Theaters, one of the official festival entries. This documentary focuses on seven women who share their stories of homelessness, much like the stories Nilan has heard over her past 25 years working with homeless adults and children, including those in DuPage County.

Nilan is the former director of the PADS shelter at Hesed House in Aurora and key influence for both the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act and the federal McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act. She has traveled over 126,000 mostly backroads miles in America for the last 6 years giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth under the banner of her nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc. (www.hearus.us).

She explains the daunting statistics, “Way over 1.5 million children and youth are homeless, and the numbers are skyrocketing! Schools have identified a million students, but experience teaches that probably at least that many are unidentified.” Nilan worked for 2 years with 305 Chicago area school districts to help them comply with the McKinney-Vento Act, legislation sponsored by Congresswoman Judy Biggert (13-IL,R). From that experience emerged My Own Four Walls, Nilan’s first documentary featuring kids talking about their homelessness and what school means to them. HEAR US sells these DVDs and other awareness-raising items to organizations and the public.

The respected human service agency, Bridge Communities, Inc., a dynamic, grassroots, nonprofit organization committed to transforming the lives of homeless families in DuPage, is encouraging existing and potential volunteers and supporter to see on the edge so they better understand the stories behind the term “homeless.”  

Jennie Gates, event manager at Bridge Communities, adds, “The movie screening is a great kick-off for Sleep Out Saturday, Bridge’s flagship event that provides an opportunity for individuals, families, and community and church groups to actually do something about homelessness.  By sleeping out in tents, cars and boxes on November 5, participants will raise awareness of the plight of homeless families while raising much-needed funds to support the families in the Bridge program.”  More information about Sleep Out Saturday can be found at www.sleepoutsaturday.org.

All those attending this screening of on the edge will receive a memento from HEAR US to remind people of the need to assist this invisible population of families in DuPage and across the nation. 

The 60-minute film will be screened 8:20 pm at the Ogden 6Theaters, 1227 E Ogden Ave., $5. Both organizations will be on hand to answer questions. Nilan, the film’s producer, Vazquez, the director, and will do a brief Q&A following the film. For information, www.hearus.us, 630/225-5012, or diane@hearus.us

# # #

Friday, February 25, 2011

Family Featured in Homelessness Documentary Again At Risk of Homelessness

[Milton, FL, 2/25/11] Melissa (photo) swore she wouldn't let homelessness ravage their family again, but despite her best efforts, this scourge is knocking on the door of their humble former FEMA trailer with an eviction notice for nonpayment of lot rental of $795.

The producer of the documentary, Diane Nilan, has set up an emergency benefit for the family on Feb. 28, 7:00 p.m., at Ferris Hill Baptist Church in Milton, where she will screen the film and take up a love donation to help the family. "I heard about Melissa's plight Thursday afternoon," said Nilan. "...and immediately made plans for this event." Nilan was in northwest Georgia advocating for homeless persons in Calhoun, GA, but pointed her road-weary RV, her home and office for the past 5+ years, toward the Panhandle.

Melissa Nason, a feisty single mom living in Milton, FL, just outside Pensacola, is one of the seven women featured in the award-winning (BEA Film Festival) documentary about homelessness, on the edge, which was filmed in a 4-year period by a national homelessness activist, Diane Nilan, president/founder of HEAR US Inc., and documentary maker/professor Laura Vazquez, Northern Illinois University.

Job loss and family crises pushed this family to the edge again. Melissa, who graduated cum laude from University of West Florida, needs a job and a reliable car to get back and forth to work. She also struggles with finding adequate care for her son with autism. But she won't quit, and is willing to speak up about their circumstances at the benefit. "The number of homeless families is growing astronomically," pointed out Nilan, who has worked in this field for over 25 years, including as a director of shelter in Illinois.

For more information, contact Diane Nilan, 630/267-5424.

# # #

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

National-Local Campaign Launched to Ease Homelessness in Calhoun, GA and Beyond

Homelessness happens in many ways, points out Diane Nilan, president and founder of HEAR US Inc., a national advocacy organization. Calhoun, GA, a small town off Interstate 75 in northwest Georgia, provided a textbook example of homelessness creation: a nondescript motel on the edge of town that had turned into "housing" for about 80 people, including 6 families, was shuttered due to nonpayment of utility bills.

After spending the weekend in Calhoun witnessing the agony caused by this sudden and unexpected closure, HEAR US launched a national campaign to urge the property's owners to do right by the people displaced by the motel's closing. Nilan, a prolific blogger and social media maven, posted a blog on Change.org, along with a petition directed to the 2 legislators (GA Senator Chip Rogers and US Congressman Tom Graves) who purchased the Oglethorpe in 2007, taking out a $2.2 million dollar loan from Bartow County Bank.

"Many questions remain about ownership and responsibility," states Nilan, who spent the weekend chronicling the trauma of homelessness at the motel. "In this age of 'personal responsibility' I'd like to see justice done. Folks here were shell-shocked at their upheaval." She is calling on the legislators to contribute money to the relocation expenses and to push for affordable housing solutions so people don't need to turn to motels or the streets. Homeless families and adults, by the millions, struggle to survive nationwide.

Nilan witnessed the painstaking process to relocate the Inn's 80 residents. Three women (who wish to remain anonymous) worked with each person to assess their resources (slim to next to none) and to explore options (also slim to next to none). Local motels and restaurants came forth to help. Individual donors and church groups chipped in money and motor-power, helping to pack up and move people to alternative lodging.

"What most people don't realize," Nilan points out, "is every community has hidden homelessness like this--people who've desperately turned to motels as a shelter, often because many communities lack shelters or other emergency resources." Nilan has decried the federal government's "bogus" count of 656,129, the latest so-called census of homelessness.

Puzzling, to Nilan and others, is the way the motel ownership (along with a $2.2 million loan) seems to have been transferred to someone (John Edens) who, by his own admission, lacked the ability to handle the task. "How can you just dump your fiscal responsibility and walk away from it? I think these legislators owe something to this community and to homeless people everywhere," she suggests. 

Nilan will present at the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness conference next week before leaving the Peach State on a national homelessness awareness tour promoting her new film, "on the edge," seven women's stories about homelessness.

# # #
photo by Diane Nilan (C)2011, yard sale items at the Oglethorpe Inn