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Q&A with Diane Nilan: Giving Voice and Visibility to Children and Youth Who Are Homeless
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HEAR US is dedicated to giving voice and visibility to children and youth who are homeless. In October 2009, HEAR US President and Founder Diane Nilan traveled across the country in her RV to learn more about their needs. She filmed interviews with children, youth, and families who were facing homelessness. HRC contributing writer Christina Jordan recently caught up with Diane in Arizona.
Family homelessness is on the rise across the United States, according to recent reports from HUD and the US Conference of Mayors. The HRC talks with Diane Nilan about her work to give voice and visibility to children and youth who are homeless in America.

Q: Why did you start HEAR US?

For 13 years I ran a homeless shelter. I also worked in eight counties outside of Chicago to implement the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Through this work, I learned that few people know about the devastating impact of homelessness on children and youth. I created HEAR US to address this need. HEAR US is dedicated to raising awareness about the effects of homelessness on children and youth.

Q: What have you learned from the children and youth you have met?

The number one thing I have learned is that there is great value in giving homeless children, youth and families the opportunity to tell their stories. It helps them feel empowered.  The homeless children I have met are determined and resilient. They want to help create a better world.  I also feel a profound sadness at finding many more families and teenagers experiencing homelessness than I had expected when I set out on this journey. The problem is far worse than I thought, and it is getting worse.  We need to do everything we can to end family homelessness.

Q: How can we work together to end child and family homelessness?

High mobility and insecure and unsafe housing can have devastating effects on children and families.  I do not think it is enough to put people up in a shelter.  We need a two-pronged approach:
  1. Stabilize families. Secure housing that fits each family or teen’s needs. We need more than a one size fits all approach.

  2. Bolster support services. Many homeless families have shared very traumatic stories about their lives with me. We need to address the psychological effects of their traumatic experiences. We must provide long-term, flexible supports for parents and kids, including mental health services.
I feel very strongly that we must do more to alleviate the negative effects of trauma experienced by homeless families and children.  We also need to develop strong mentoring programs to nurture children in a constructive way.

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