Chicago homeless

Suburban Activist Who Sold Home to Advocate For Homeless Releases New Project

Diane Nilan says 80 percent of the homeless aren’t even on the government’s radar

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Fifteen years ago, Diane Nilan, an advocate for the homeless in Joliet and Aurora for decades, sold her house and all her belongings and bought an RV to travel the country. Her mission: to document the homelessness problem in America and its impact on families.

Nilan videotaped her journey and released several documentaries along the way. When the pandemic hit, she wrote a book about her travels, “Dismazed and Driven: My Look at Family Homelessness in America.”

"These families just go through so much," Nilan said, "and have really no one to share their stories with. I feel like I’m the instrument. It’s such a good thing to be able to do, to share what their stories are, because people don’t know. It’s been really satisfying, and I think very helpful.”

"It really saddens me to know that we’ve turned our back on so many millions of people in our country," she said, "who could be vibrant contributors in our communities.”

Nilan says 80 percent of the homeless aren’t even on the government’s radar, but she says school districts are doing a better job of keeping track. It’s tricky, she said, because parents are afraid they will lose custody of their children if their homeless status is uncovered.

“We have the resources to be able to help a whole lot of families that aren’t getting help," she said, "and I think we need to figure out who can make that possible, to let people live in dignity, so that they can take care of their kids, they can have a roof over their head, that they’re not worried."

Nilan plans to hit the road again in a few weeks. While the pandemic has slowed down her efforts a bit, she’s still in the game.

“I’m hopeful in this new administration, once we get to that point, that we can start moving towards a more constructive way to serve those who really need the most help," Nilan said. "That’s what government is about, is helping those get what they need, so they can be the best people they can be. Right now that isn’t the case.”

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