Making the Invisible Visible: An Interview with Housing Activist Diane Nilan

December 23, 2020   •   By Eleanor J. Bader

WHEN FORMER SHELTER DIRECTOR Diane Nilan sold her Illinois townhouse and most of her possessions in 2005, she set out to do what no one had ever done: travel the backroads of America to record the stories of the women, men, and children living doubled and tripled up, in cars, campgrounds, motels, shelters, and storage facilities throughout the country.


Her latest book, Dismazed and Driven: My Look at Family Homelessness in America (Charles Bruce Foundation), is part memoir, part social narrative, and part activist manual about what she calls “the plight and promise” of the 10 million undomiciled people she estimates have no permanent home.


Deeply personal — Nilan coined the word “dismazed” to capture her despair and amazement — the book is both inspiring and infuriating, a deep dive into the failure of US policymakers to tackle poverty and meaningfully address the affordable housing crisis. Her piercing observations chronicle bureaucratic bumbling, as well as political indifference and victim blaming. At the same time, Nilan pays homage to the many intrepid people she’s met, from homeless moms, dads, and children to the many advocates who are working tirelessly, even in a pandemic, to offer support and material comfort to those in need. The book is also prescriptive, with clear recommendations about what needs to be done.


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ELEANOR J. BADER: Before the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 was passed by Congress, children whose families became homeless did not have an automatic right to stay in the school they’d been attending before they lost their homes. You were instrumental in changing the law so that kids can now maintain educational consistency. How did that unfold?


DIANE NILAN: When I first started working for Catholic Charities in Joliet, Illinois, in 1986, I had no clue about homelessness. I stumbled into it. When McKinney-Vento was first passed 34 years ago, there were not as many homeless families as there are today, and homeless families were not on anyone’s radar. In fact, when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) got involved in offering homeless services, they only talked about the guys and gals living on the streets.


Things at the state level were a bit different. I started a shelter in Joliet in 1987 and began to get involved in statewide advocacy in the late 1980s. By then, family homelessness was becoming more of an issue. In 1993, one of the families in our shelter needed help keeping their kids enrolled in the school they’d attended before losing their home. This family introduced me and my co-workers to the issue, and we started fighting with the school system to keep kids from being transferred. Thanks to our advocacy, Illinois passed the first state law in the country allowing kids to stay in their original school. It was an awesome victory but it took until 2002 for McKinney-Vento to extend this right to kids in other states.


This was also when McKinney-Vento first mandated that every school district in the country appoint a homeless liaison to work with homeless students and their families.


Have the liaisons been effective?


By and large, these people have been tremendous. They know each family’s needs, whether it is for seasonally appropriate clothing, fresh food, physical or mental health care, or a place to clean up, and they will often go through hell to make things better for homeless children and their families. For example, when they realized that truancy is reduced when kids have clean clothes, they raised money to install laundry facilities in many schools. Some programs have also installed well-stocked shower facilities with towels, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. These kinds of things boost self-esteem and academic performance, even if the family is still homeless.


The fact that the majority of homeless people are women and children is still largely unrecognized. Why do you think the stereotype of the homeless adult living on the streets has remained so pervasive?


People living doubled or tripled up aren’t as visible as the homeless adult who is sleeping in the doorway of a building, so they don’t get as much attention. They’re essentially invisible.


There is also still a lot of disdain for the homeless. People hear the word “homeless” and immediately think about someone who drinks too much or has been labeled “crazy.” As a society, we treat these conditions as if they make the person undeserving of help.


At the same time, these attitudes deflect the reality that since the 1980s, the government has brutally slashed funding for new public housing construction and housing subsidies. Basically, we’ve never addressed the high cost of housing that puts a home out of reach for millions of low-income people.


Why have the root causes of poverty, homelessness, and hunger received so little government attention?


Our politicians tend to favor one-size-fits-all solutions, and these simply don’t work. Maybe it’s human nature to judge others, but there is simultaneously a resistance to helping people if it’s likely to enable them to be or stay dependent. Ronald Reagan codified the whole bootstrap mentality, and it has damned every effort to address poverty and related issues for decades. In addition, we all know people with horrible substance abuse problems and people generally feel that it’s no use helping alcoholics or addicts. Additionally, few homeless people vote.


What’s missing is an open discussion of trauma. Trauma is such a big issue in poverty. It’s not limited to the poor, of course, but it contributes to addiction, poor physical and mental health, and the ability to be self-supporting and self-reliant.


A lot of trauma comes from sexual abuse and in my years of doing this work, I’ve been blown away by the stories women have been willing to share. Sexual abuse festers and creates problems that can last for a person’s entire life. It’s a huge elephant in the middle of the room. I’ve learned that even if you give someone a place to live, a job, and childcare, if their health is being undermined by a history of abuse, their lives will eventually fall apart again. The cycle will repeat unless and until the abuse is dealt with. There is no other way.


Dismazed and Driven notes another issue, which is that HUD does not consider families homeless unless they are living in a shelter. Their official homeless count is 500,000 because they don’t include doubled-up families, those living in vehicles, campgrounds, or other relatively obscure spots. You estimate that 10 million people are currently homeless, while the Department of Education (DOE) reports 1.5 million homeless kids in K–12. Why the vast disparity?


HUD has never treated homeless families as a priority. I’ve repeatedly asked why HUD’s definition is so narrow, and one senator’s staff person actually told me that they don’t want to allocate funds to assist everyone who needs help; they’d rather keep the floodgates closed.


Many efforts have been made to change HUD’s definition. The Homeless Children and Youth Act has been introduced repeatedly and will be reintroduced again next year. It was sponsored in the House by Representative Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Representative Dave Loebsack (D-IA) who reintroduced it as H.R. 2001. It was bipartisan, meant to help ensure that children have access to the services they need to escape poverty. The act aligns the HUD definition of homelessness with that of other programs, including the Department of Education. It’s beyond time to change the definition to reflect reality, because many families without a place of their own avoid the shelter system.


And while we’re talking about changing things, we need to change the way we look at public housing and welfare. Both have negative connotations despite helping millions of families make ends meet.


One of the most shocking revelations in the book involves the storage industry. These businesses, you report, typically sell or dispose of property if folks fall behind in paying their monthly fees. So many people put valuable papers into storage as a safety precaution only to lose everything.


Most people I talk to put their possessions into storage when they first become homeless and then, after a few months, end up losing everything. As I drive across the United States, I see storage facilities popping up everywhere. I was at a conference a while back, screening one of my films, and a hotel employee came up to me and told me he’d been homeless and had put his stuff into storage. When he learned that his possessions were about to be auctioned, he went to the auction site to see if he could get anything back. He told me that he ended up finding his papers in a dumpster. These companies would rather throw people’s stuff out than give them a chance to retrieve their valuables — things like photographs, birth certificates, citizenship documents. Most people end up backed into a corner because it costs money to replace this stuff.


You’ve been documenting the stories of homeless families for 15 years, but have focused exclusively on non-urban areas. Was this a conscious decision?


Yes. When I initially concocted my plans, I figured I’d find homeless families in out-of-the-way places and counter the idea that homelessness is just an urban issue. I’ve found homeless families in small towns, resort towns, rural and suburban areas as well as large and mid-sized cities. The problem is literally everywhere, even in towns with million-dollar homes in Silicon Valley, California.


Dismazed and Driven is your second book, and you also recently co-authored Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness with Yvonne Vissing and Christopher Hudson (Routledge, 2019). But most of your work has been in film. Why did you choose this medium?


Film gives viewers the chance to see faces and hear not only words, but feelings. It’s the best way to bring kids and parents in front of educators, administrators, and others who need to make a human connection.


On my first trip, I literally knew nothing about making films. Whatever good footage I captured in my first effort, My Own Four Walls, was accidental, but I had fantastic mentors and teachers including Northern Illinois University film professor Laura Vazquez. Since I began, I’ve made films for several state agencies, which has helped me fund my work. My first was a 20-minute video for the Texas Homeless Education Office. I’ve made videos for state agencies in Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington.


Dismazed and Driven speaks about several people who influenced you, including the late Mitch Snyder (1943–1990), who founded the Community for Creative Non-Violence. Did you work together?


I’d read about Mitch when I worked for Catholic Charities in 1986, and I later saw him give a talk at a conference. He was so outside-the-box, so radical. At the time he was organizing the Housing NOW! March on Washington that was held in October 1989. I organized buses from Illinois to go to it. I also invited him to speak at a statewide advocacy conference and remember him saying that housing had already become unaffordable on the East and West coasts but that rising prices would soon spread to the rest of the country. He was so right.


I was blown away by his suicide, but I also understand that working on poverty and homelessness can take a toll on advocates and activists.


One of your antidotes for despair seems to be your relationship with Pat LaMarche. The two of you have gone on several tours that sound pretty kick-ass.


Meeting Pat was a fluke, but my whole life has been pretty fluky. I guess I’m open to serendipity. I’d read an op-ed that Pat had written in 2010 for the Bangor Daily News in Maine about Sarah Palin, and I immediately knew that she was a kindred soul. I was in DC at the time, and when I saw that she lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, two hours away, I reached out and went to meet her. I was so awed that she’d run for US vice president on the Green Party ticket in 2004. We also had a lot in common, including the belief that homelessness is simply wrong. We talked about doing a speaking and filmmaking trip together and hit the road for our Southern Discomfort Tour in January 2011. It was really successful. Two years later, we did a six-week trip across Route 66. It was on this trip that journalist Cenk Uygur interviewed us on his program, The Young Turks, and dubbed us the “Babes of Wrath.” The name stuck!


What do you recommend as solutions to the homelessness crisis?


Actually, we need many approaches. For some people, a single low-cost room with a bathroom and a bit of community will be enough. For others, larger publicly-run units that are affordable to low-income people, are needed. Social service supports are absolutely necessary. As I said earlier, providing housing and only housing is insufficient. People need help confronting and dealing with abuse, neglect, and other traumas. Furthermore, we need to know how many people are living in the shadows and get a more reflective count of homeless families and individuals. It boils down to the fact that government has to do something to ameliorate poverty, increase the minimum wage, and commit to providing health care and housing to all who need it.


What’s next for you?


The pandemic, as awful as it’s been, gave me the time to write Dismazed and Driven. I’d been toying with the idea of writing another book — my first, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, came out in 2005 — and back in February I came up with the idea of integrating a memoir with a social narrative about the people I’ve met since I embarked on this project. Now that the book is out, I’m hoping to make a film about how the coronavirus has intersected with family homelessness. I don’t think people understand what the many dimensions of the virus have meant for unhoused families.


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Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to LARB, she writes for Truthout.org, The Progressive, Lilith Magazine, Fiction Writers Review and other online and print publications.