Poverty — You’re Killing Us!

Connecting Poverty, Homelessness, Trauma and Death

Diane Nilan
8 min readApr 6, 2023

--

Death.

Not a particularly upbeat topic when talking about children, but one that needs attention to change — improve — the trajectory of children’s lives in America. After all, allowing fate to have its premature way and watching vulnerable kids and parents die would, or should, reflect badly on our affluent nation.

(Have I lost you yet? Stick with me. You’ll see the path to solutions.)

Welcome Cemetery in rural Kansas.
Welcome Cemetery in rural Kansas. Photo Diane Nilan

Having run large homeless shelters in Illinois for 15 years, and with over 3 decades of work with homeless, a.k.a. unhoused, families on the national level, I’ve seen more than my share of death. Some stick with me more than others. From my shelter days — a newborn in a crib died in our transitional facility, and 2 adorable young boys had to listen as their gregarious mother was belittled by the priest at her funeral.

Since 2005, I’ve interviewed hundreds of parents experiencing homelessness across the backroads of our country to chronicle their stories, the focus of my one-woman nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.

Recently, death came to Max, the gruff and determined New Jersey dad I interviewed who dropped dead after clawing his way to housing stability for his 3 delightful children. That rattled my cage, but not as much as it did to these now orphans whose mother also died recently. All indications was their father’s death was stress-related, fueled by abject poverty.

https://www.app.com/story/news/local/communitychange/2016/12/20/barnegat-single-dad-struggle-bounce-back/95154332/
Max and his kids, Dec. 2016. Photo credit Doug Hood, Asbury Park Press

Counterproductive Orphan Creation

The overlooked reality — when a single parent dies, the children become orphans. Death is not limited to impoverished families, but the risk factors these beleaguered parents harbor, especially unaddressed trauma piled onto immense stress, years of deprivation and lack of health services, put them in the “high-risk” category in my opinion.

Family sleeping area with medical equipment.
Family sleeping area with medical equipment. Photo Diane Nilan

Trauma — the Root of Many Ills

In my relatively clueless shelter-running days of last century, I had no idea about the impact of trauma on a person — that it can drastically shorten lifespans.

The wrath of trauma creates a plethora of health issues likely to impair the quality of life for those unable to escape its tenacious grip. Unescapable risk factors assail both parents and kids every day.

The impact of trauma on the brain can make “normal responses” impossible, limiting the person’s reaction to crisis with the less helpful “flight, flight or freeze” reaction instead of a more helpful cognitive response.

Donna Nicolino, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, recently wrote in The Connecticut Mirror,

…in trauma therapy, that when someone feels threatened, they will respond with either a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. This is not a cognitive process. In crisis situations, the “thinking part” of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, quickly becomes overwhelmed by the limbic system or “emotional part” of the brain. This is an evolutionary advantage that helps the body react immediately to imminent threats.

Many ill-fated decisions can be attributed to impeded brain function, decisions that impact innocent children, who stand to suffer from…

…generational trauma.

In all the heartfelt stories shared with me over these decades, parents opened up about their own traumatic upbringing, and insisted that they didn’t want to put their kids through the same rough experiences.

How to avoid that might not be as easy as saying it, since I’d guess the parents were as clueless as I was about the effects of trauma and how to keep from imparting trauma on their children, especially as they, lacking resources or recourse, are barraged with immeasurable challenges.

According to Dr. Gabor Maté, “The home becomes a place where we unwittingly recreate scenarios reminiscent of those that wounded us when we were small.”

Examples of Trauma’s Impact

Over the years, thanks to social media, I’ve been able to keep in contact with folks I knew from my shelter days. The first homeless family I ever met, back in the mid-80s, had 2 kids. One of them, “Hilda,” is now a mom and grandma. Her posts reflect her early years of struggles — abysmal health, ravaged by out-of-control diabetes, in addition to obvious depression. Hilda’s kids also suffer major health issues, byproducts of trauma.

“Brenda,” now in her late 30s, was one of those unforgettable kids from the mid-90s, and our connection has remained strong since then. She’s been married, had a son — the apple of her eye, got divorced, had her son taken from her, a shattering experience, both her mom and dad died, leaving her an adult orphan in need of a non-existent support system. Her health has run the gamut of major concerns — heart, undiagnosed conditions (I’d suspect stress-related) — and her mental health reveals symptoms of someone sexually abused as a child, on top of being born into abject poverty to a mother ill-equipped to raise a child. Brenda has tried to maintain maternal contact with her son, not easy with the hand she’s been dealt.

I recently learned about “Kris,” a mom in her late 20s, doubled-up homeless with her 4 young boys, all under the age of 10. I could tell something was “off” with her during our interviews, though she willingly shared her story of a failed relationship and the predictably ensuing housing loss, leaving her and her boys with nowhere to live in a part of the country with no options.

She expressed determination to continue pursuing her college degree while working, as she and her kids grappled with the impossibly crowded conditions with her grandmother. Months after I met Kris, I learned she shot herself in front of her boys. Death. Generational trauma.

Painfully Honest Stories

When I film interviews with parents, and sometimes their kids (if appropriate), to help school personnel and others understand family homelessness, I don’t prepare or script these sessions. I just ask them to share about their housing situations and what school means to them.

I’m always astounded and humbled by their openness and the level of sharing they exude. Each story contains the same “ingredients,” lives filled with hardships, brutal treatment from authorities, rampant housing instability, seemingly insurmountable challenges that somehow get met, and dismal future prospects.

Despite dire conditions, parents express deep-felt love for their kids, determined to pursue whatever it takes to make their lives better. The kids I’ve interviewed rarely give a hint of disappointment or frustration with their (typically single) parent(s). Most aspire to do well in school and to enter a helping profession. They point to countless reasons to be grateful and express appreciation for help they’ve been given.

Me and my van, T2, in a dusty NM town
Me and my van, T2, in a dusty NM town. Photo courtesy HEAR US Inc.

I live in a van full-time, giving me the luxury of drive-time therapy between interviews. I’ve pondered the issue of family homelessness quite a bit. Engraved in my mind and heart are these kids who, through no fault of their own, are born into crappy situations. I know kids who, despite these crappy situations, have moved into promising lives. I guess that’s what keeps me going.

What would I fix if I had the magic wand to wave?

I’d point it at Congress, with their power to overhaul our abysmal approach to children’s well-being. We would see a country that truly values families, making sure all had the essentials needed for fulfilling lives — housing, nutrition, education, health care, and child care for starters. These basics would not have to be fought for, nor proven to be needed. They would be available for all families, with supportive services as needed to help families over obstacles to well-being.

We would drastically shift to trauma-informed practices in any system that has contact with families as not to worsen what can’t be undone, and to help each child and parent achieve their best potential. Services would be designed to holistically support the mental and physical health of kids and their parents.

The transition to this new approach would include catching those who now teeter on the edge of life and death, easing them into the nurturing world of mental and physical health care as needed, and children would receive assuring support.

Dr. Maté stresses: Scientifically speaking, you cannot separate the mind from the body, and the emotional apparatus is part and parcel of the same system that runs the immune apparatus as well.

Whatever the cost of our actions, it will be worth it. These kids have the potential to change our world. Since my generation seems to have abysmally failed in leaving things better, we must make sure the upcoming generation have what it takes to succeed.

My relatively minor involvement in creating and strengthening the rights of children without housing to access public education (federal legislation, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children Act) has gifted me with countless opportunities to meet courageous kids and parents who treasure education as the means to break out of the grasp of poverty and homelessness.

I’ve done what I could to reinforce compliance with this law by creating videos featuring kids and parents sharing how important educational stability is to them, educating audiences about this obscure issue, advocating with lawmakers to strengthen/protect this law, and intervening when authorities illegally block school doors.

Kids invisibly lingering on the edges of our society — with families and without — who lack housing and other essentials, reflect my personal challenge as a child advocate. I’ve pretty much lost faith in the system to automatically do the right thing by them.

I’ve got nothing to lose by relentlessly ratcheting up my efforts however I can to bring this forgotten segment of our nation’s children to the forefront, and to demand that they get what they need to thrive.

It’s long past time to implement life-giving policies and practices for those most vulnerable, especially children. We who have accepted this mission have our work cut out for us. Death, the ultimate motivator, will come for us all, but it shouldn’t be let in the door before its time.

“The HEAR US e-bookshop” of excellent books on poverty, homelessness, trauma, families. Sales through this shop yield modest donations to our nonprofit. Or you can buy the books from other vendors.

--

--

Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us