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Interview with a Homeless Advocate

September 30, 2011

Diane Nilan is passionately committed to giving homelessness a face and a voice. Diane is the founder of HEAR US Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. She travels across the United States to raise awareness of and sensitivity to homelessness to inspire others to take action to ease and end it.

Bridge Communities was fortunate to spend a few minutes with Diane earlier this week to discuss issues surrounding homelessness and how she feels Sleep Out Saturday can make an impact.

Bridge Communities: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the homeless?
Diane Nilan: Without a doubt, the biggest misconception about homelessness is the lack of understanding lack of awareness of that. Everywhere I go, the stereotype of the bedraggled guy on the street corner is predominant. That is exactly what everyone’s perception of homelessness is. Sadly, that’s one that people are OK with dismissing. Certainly when audiences find out that women, children and youth are every bit as homeless as the guys on the street corners, it really registers as a shock to most people.

BC: How do you think we can change people’s opinions about the homeless?
DN: The one thing that I’ve seen that has made a profound change in peoples’ perceptions is when they see the faces and hear the voices of people that are experiencing homelessness, which is at the heart of what I’ve been doing for the past 6+ years – to let people see the videos* “My Own Four Walls” and “on the edge,” because they hear from the experts. They realize that the misconceptions they’ve had have kept them from understanding the scope of homelessness that hits every community across the country. The one thing we can do is get faces and voices out to be seen and heard.

BC: What are the biggest obstacles in accomplishing this?
DN: Sadly, obstacles include the lack of awareness in Congress and in our State Houses about the breadth and depth of homelessness. Most of the legislators I’ve talked to over the years are totally unaware of homelessness as it affects families and youth. That is a huge barrier. Within our communities, the elected officials all the way down to the township level don’t realize how little the safety net is in their community. Once they recognize that and realize how easy it is to become homeless and how hard it is to get out of homelessness, with a little mix of compassion, we can start to change that.

The other reality is that, especially with families, the cost of housing, the lack of jobs, the lack of support services – all of those things are real barriers for families experience anything as common as domestic violence or flooded houses. It’s so much easier now for families to become homeless than it ever has been in my 25 years working in this field.

BC: How do you feel Sleep Out Saturday helps?
DN: Sleep Out Saturday has grown to be a huge awareness raising event. One of the things that I’ve seen and heard about is the fact that when people experience one night of discomfort, that is at least a small sample of what homeless families might go through, I think they start realizing, “How could you then get up in the morning and go about getting your life back together?” It makes the discomfort of homelessness a lot more tangible. So then people start looking at homelessness differently. It gives more of the depth of the experience.

I’ve heard lots of good things from members of the faith communities that participate. There’s kind of been an enthusiastic pride in saying “Hey, I did this.” And I’ve heard comments that convey solidarity. That’s a very powerful feeling that really opens the door for a lot more involvement.

BC: Why do you think people should participate in SOS?
DN: Solidarity. The concept of walking in somebody’s shoes – even for a little while – makes you aware, makes you mindful. Once you’re mindful, you start noticing homelessness in the community and you start being aware that even in affluent DuPage County, homelessness is a huge problem.

BC: How could your movie, “on the edge,” help prepare people for Sleep Out Saturday?
DN: Of the many things that it does, “on the edge” will remove the stereotypes that typically serve as barriers for people getting involved in an issue that is almost like the plague for some people – they think they’re going to catch it. Then they hear the stories of the women in “on the edge,” and they realize they are just ordinary women who’ve had some really bad things happen. Once people start realizing that homeless people are just like you and me, they end up wanting to help more.

BC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DN: I have heard and read so may negative comments about people in poverty and how they deserve it and don’t deserve any help. What Bridge Communities has done over the years to try to foster a compassion epidemic – because that’s really the solution to the issues we face in our society today – in addition to helping families, I think it also creates a very positive ripple effect in our community. We need that now more than ever. I’m very delighted that Bridge continues to do all of these extra things to try to help the DuPage community become more compassionate.

*Diane’s movies can be purchased online at http://hearus.us/understanding-homelessness/videos.html.

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