“There are about 5-6 million homeless children in America”
Diane Nilan is the founder and president of the foundation helping the homeless families HEAR US Inc. She has over 25 years experience working with impoverished and homeless families including directing the shelter at Hesed House in Aurora for 13 years. In 2005, Nilan formed a national non-profit organization, HEAR US Inc., to call attention to the hidden issue of homeless families and youth. She also travels across the country to meet and help the people in need.
– Mrs. Nilan some of the experts say that the existence of the homeless families in the U.S. is the best kept secret in the country. Is this true?
– This is a very true statement. Often when I ask someone how do you picture the homeless, 90% say it is a mentally ill person, or someone who is addicted to drugs.
This is the image that our society has about the homeless. Surely, this is the image that the politicians in this country have for them. Because of this, many homeless families remain invisible in America. On the other hand, they do not dare to speak out publicly about their homelessness, because are afraid their children not to be taken away.
– How many are the homeless children in the U.S.?
– According to statistics, there are over 1 million children of school age. But actually maybe 2 million. Besides, with the addition of the children who are not in a school age, I would not be surprised if there are about 5-6 million homeless children in America.
– Why are there so many homeless children and families?
– Because during the 80’s, the government stopped subsidizing housing for the poor. The drastic cuts in funds had a devastating effect on those who needed housing. The market prices jumped and the rents for more than 20 years are going up. The people could not afford to pay the high rents. Furthermore, the lack of jobs and low wages also influence this process. Other reasons to have families without shelters, are the natural disasters, such as the Hurricane Katrina, for example. Once you find yourself in this situation, it is very hard to move up.
– Are there children and families who sleep on the streets?
– Yes, but they are not that visible as in other countries.
– What are the people in America doing after loosing their homes?
– Many of them sleep in their cars or vans. I have seen many people who sleep in the parking lots. I’ve seen also families who make tent camps and stay in the woods. There are also people who sleep at friends, relatives, or in their garages. Others go to the cheaper hotels, but this is very expensive. To be able to afford it they work hard and have more than one jobs, so they can be able to provide their families with some form of housing. There are also shelters, but they are currently overcrowded and people are sent away from their doors.
– How does the life of a family, living in a shelter looks like?
– Based on my own experience I can say that it is a very hard life. This is not a natural environment for a family. Some shelters have rules that make it nearly impossible to keep the family together. Some of the shelters have rules that not allow the older boys to stay at the shelter and the families are forced to be separated. They do not allow pets. Many shelters require families not to remain in them during the day. People have nowhere to go and wander on the streets. And if it’s cold outside and they have young children, the situation becomes even more severe. And on the top of everything if one of the kids gets sick, everyone gets sick at the shelter. There are some children who have mental or emotional problems, which is also very difficult to adapt in such environments. The life in the shelter is very, very hard.
– In the U.S., many ordinary people believe that if you are poor, it’s your own problem.
– You are right. It is sad, but the people really understand what it’s like having no roof above your head only when they or some of their family becomes homeless. Then, they begin to see the problem differently. What I’m trying to do is to get the people to understand the homelessness. There are also millions of people who help and volunteer at the homeless shelters.
– How fast can you slide down from a middle class to the homelessness in the U.S.?
– It can happen in an instant. It can happen if you lose your job, if you need an emergency medical surgery, or having a health problem, being hit by a natural disaster, or have some family problems, divorce and etc. The bad thing for you is that you have no support after this misfortune befall you and you find yourself in this hole.
– How can we overcome this problem?
– There is no easy cure for this “disease”. What is needed is a political decision. In the U.S., for example, there are many abandoned, empty buildings and offices that could be used to help the people to stand back on their feet. If we do nothing, the problem will grow. We need politicians who are not disgusted looking at the people on the bottom.
– We are approaching the elections, which of the two candidates – Obama or Romney, has a better understanding of this problem?
– I am concerned because Mitt Romney shows no understanding of what it is to be homeless. I’ve met Obama before he became president. He is familiar with what it is to be poor and without home. I think, as a human being he has the better capacity to help. But if you do not get the Congress to change their attitude and way of thinking about the poor, the homeless and the people who do not earn enough money, it will be very hard to change things here in America.
– When we in Bulgaria are pressed by the economic hardship, we often emigrate. What do the people in the United States do in similar situations?
– In most of the cases, people who have lost their jobs or their homes, do not travel. They can not afford to move or buy gas for their cars. So they stay in places that are familiar where they have close friends, relatives, or family.
– Mrs. Nilan you often travel across the U.S. to help homeless families. Tell us some of the stories that you encounter on your trips?
– Once I traveled through Louisiana and in a small park I noticed a woman with a little boy. She was washing her clothes under the tap and was letting them dry on the car. We started talking and soon appeared that she was homeless. It was very difficult for her, but she was trying to cheer up the child and to encourage him. It was a typical ‘invisible’ family who struggled to survive. This picture touched me very deeply and I can not forget her.