Her ‘Biggest Fear’: A Lesson for Us All

When you think you do things right — get married, have a family, live in a nice home — then it falls apart, what happens? Tamu, an articulate and honest mother whose life fell apart, courageously shares her observations.

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Tamu’s youngest, Zoe, catches a few more winks before heading off to school. Photo by Diane Nilan

My biggest challenge and joy comes from listening to parents and kids talk about what homelessness and school means to them. In September, as part of my work for my nonprofit HEAR US Inc., I interviewed Tamu and hung out in their New Jersey motel room to chronicle their lives.

Rather than me blather on about what I think/know about this situation, I’ll let Tamu share her story (5 min), followed by my discussion guide that I will be using this week (and beyond) as I screen this and my longer film at the New Jersey Homeless Education conference.

A 5-minute visit with Tamu.

Now that you’ve listened to Tamu’s all-too-common story of her fall from “normal” to this unimaginable life, let’s see if you paid attention.


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Family of 5 sharing a motel room presents storage challenges. Photo by Diane Nilan

What came out in Tamu’s narrative about:

  • Doubling Up
  • Transportation
  • Family Relationships
  • School Stability (McKinney-Vento) Importance
  • Food
  • Cost of Survival
  • Importance of Work
  • Effects of Cramped Living


  • What did she say about getting out?
  • What did she mean about ‘her biggest fear’?
  • What would it be like to do homework in this environment?
  • Have you ever visited a family that’s been in motel/doubled-up/shelter/other? Discuss.
  • Why did Tamu insist on paying for a motel vs. doubling up? or shelter?
  • What is the impact of their diet on health?
  • How does this lifestyle impact the children’s social development?
  • What possible forms of trauma may this have family experienced?


  • What important ways do families in these situations need help?
  • How would Tamu get to Parent-Teacher meetings? School activities?
  • What happens when any of her kids get sick? When she gets sick?
  • What challenges does she face with food storage/preparation?
  • How much does she need to meet her basic housing expense now? If she moves into a market rate unit?
  • What does her income need to be for this?
  • What public assistance programs could help her? What is the reality of attaining their help?


  • What’s most important to her?
  • How does her story contrast with your previous understanding of families experiencing homelessness?
  • What is the likelihood that Tamu and her family attain their own housing?


  • What perceptions about families experiencing homelessness changed for you after watching this?
  • What can you do to help (personally, professionally, etc.)?
  • What would you like to say to Tamu?

If you have any questions or comments, contact me at diane@hearus.us.

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No place like home. Photo by Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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