Dad & Kids Escaped Homeless Hell

But that wasn’t enough.

Diane Nilan
5 min readMar 22, 2023

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max and his kids, Asbury Park Press Photo by Doug Hood
Max and his kids, Dec. 2016. Photo credit Doug Hood, Asbury Park Press

I met Max in September 2017 in Barnegat, NJ, as I (www.hearus.us) worked on a family homelessness film for the NJ Department of Education.

The intensity of Max Malick’s devotion to his 3 kids reflected his appreciation for having a place of their own to live, his relief for being out of a hellish situation of being doubled up for 4 years, and his determination to not screw up his second chance to be a dad. Sadly, those reasons didn’t matter. Max, 42, died on March 11, 2023.

Max spoke openly of his screw-ups, drug use and a drug conviction that led to prison. The children’s mother also landed in prison and struggled with drug addiction. She has since passed away. Their addictions, a common adversity, wreaked havoc for their families and loved ones.

In 2008, Max was busted for selling cocaine. He was using, also. It was all about the money, he said. While he served his sentence, his kids stayed with his mom. When released, Max joined his kids at his mom’s, more than doubled up along with four other adults in a cramped house. He and his kids slept in the dining room, with a sheet across the door for privacy, for four years.

Unknowing critics (because drug users have plenty of critics) would say he got what he deserved. The strain on Max, his kids and his housemates, wore them down like a hurricane tide on a shoreline. Finally, his mother issued an ultimatum — you’ve gotta go.

Fortunately, Max’s plight came to the attention of some caring people in his small NJ community. His paltry wages, $11 hour as a landscaper, didn’t cut it for an unassisted, market-rate housing search. But his community came forth and Max and his kids moved into their palatial digs, a humble but adequate home, not far from his mom’s.

When Max described his journey in my film (https://vimeo.com/256311048), he reflected the grueling pressure to maintain his housing combined with the futility of a single parent trying to meet his three kids’ needs while slaving at a job with inadequate wages. But he persisted.

The Memorial Blanket Project for Homeless Persons Memorial Day, Dec. 21, 2022. Photo Diane Nilan

Who Cares About the Struggles of Millions?

Issues of affordable housing, living wages, child care, health care and adequate family supports get bantered around in Congress with the intensity of deciding what’s for lunch. Pay any attention to what passes for debate and it’s evident that too many Members don’t “shiv-a-git” as my Mom used to say. But these issues are coming to light with blazing new books.

Matthew Desmond, sociologist and Pulitzer prize winning author of *Evicted, has a scathing new book out, *Poverty, By America. In this recent Guardian article, Desmond describes the troubling facts he sees:

“If America’s poor founded a country it would have a bigger population than Australia”… “more than 1 million Americans don’t have running water or a flushing toilet at home… more than 38 million cannot afford the basic necessities”; “more than 1 million of our children are homeless, living in motels, cars, shelters”.

He gets it. Congress and too many Americans don’t. Desmond’s book offers several practical solutions that could ostensibly end poverty, a great step to ending homelessness.

Where Do Parents Get Money?

The fact that Max continued to successfully keep his family housed and cared for since 2017 might not seem impressive to the unknowing. To me, it’s a massive accomplishment. Homelessness breathed down his neck like a fiery dragon. The temptation to sell drugs, I would imagine, hovered only to be repelled by the memories of the hell he paid for that mistake.

Parents like Max — and our country has way more in similar straits than we know — sacrifice for their kids by working extra hours, often leaving the kids unsupervised. Even when the single parent is present, he/she has a sense of pending disaster looming over their heads. They need money.

Stress is Deadly.

Trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté points out that stress is killing people. In an interview about his newest book, *The Myth of Normal, for New Paradigm Recovery, he points out,

By its very nature our social and economic culture generates chronic stressors that undermine well-being in the most serious of ways… How are we to understand that in our modern world, at the pinnacle of medical ingenuity and sophistication, we are seeing more and more chronic physical disease as well as afflictions such as mental illness and addiction?

Knowing what I do about Max and his family history, I can imagine that things were tough for him as a kid and probably for his mother, as an adult and child. “Things being tough” often equates to traumatic experiences which get a Gabor-intense treatment in this captivating short video of his theory of childhood trauma and addiction.

Truth be told, we all either know people who suffer with addictions (of all sorts, not just drugs and alcohol) and/or have walked this path ourselves. What separates us from people like Max might be luck, opportunity, resources, relationships, and/or community.

Max. RIP.
Max. RIP. Photo Diane Nilan

Fitting Tribute to Max

This heartfelt series of stories by Jerry Carino in the Asbury Press about Max and his journey should be required reading:

Myth-busting Poverty Books

The Atlantic highlighted Matt Desmond’s book, *Poverty, By America with a worthy review:

The prevailing assumption among scholars had been that most poor people in America’s urban areas lived in public housing. In fact, only 15 percent of low-income renters in the United States fell into this category, Desmond found.

Another timely new poverty tome, *Bootstrapped by Alissa Quart, Barbara Ehrenreich’s protege, gets high praise in a Kirkus review:

Building on her previous book, *Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, journalist Quart, head of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, dissects the notion of bootstrapping, “a shorthand term I am using to describe…every-man-for-themselves individualism.”

Max — Your Life and Death Matter

Max now travels with me in spirit as I focus efforts to change the way our nation destroys families and individuals caught up in poverty and homelessness. One thing I know for sure — we cannot continue down this path to destruction of our nation’s most treasured resources: our families.

*HEAR US, my nonprofit, gets a small sum for books purchased through our indie bookshop. Thanks for your support (and not feeding the Bezos dragon!)!

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 20 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us