Unleashing Fearsome Force to Help Homeless Kids

Congress Beware! The Nuns Are Coming!

Intensity. Photo Diane Nilan

It’s been 12 long years since we first saw the common sense, bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act introduced in Congress. This legislation makes it possible for families and youth on their own to get help to end their homelessness. But that doesn’t seem to be important, so as an advocate who’s been on this case from the beginning, I’m pulling out all stops by enlisting a secret weapon — nuns from across the country.

More info on HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest

I’m president and founder of HEAR US Inc., a national nonprofit organization advocating for families and youth experiencing homelessness. Right now I’m in the midst of traveling on what I’ve dubbed HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest, following Rt. 20 across the top of the country and I-20 in the south to raise awareness about this mostly invisible population which has seen explosive growth in the past decade. For the past 14 years I’ve been living in a van, criss-crossing the country chronicling family and youth homelessness.

Along my journey I’ve been handing out postcard-size pleas for ordinary citizens to take a couple of minutes to take action to get the Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA), HR 2001, passed. It requires a quick visit to www.helphomelesskidsnow.org, where the TAKE ACTION tab asks for your zip code to identify your legislators, and a customizable letter pops up that will be sent to your lawmakers. Easy-peasy, right?

It occurred to me that I could tap into a dedicated, albeit aging, group of advocates — Sisters who belong to religious communities. Turns out I know a lot of these nuns (not quite the right term, but it’s a popular one, so we’ll go with it). All across the country.

Evelyn (right) is my Holyoke lead advocate for HCYA. Photo Diane Nilan

Evelyn, member of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, my deceased Mom’s alert 98-year-old high school classmate in Massachusetts, is spreading the word. Paula, my 94-year-old high school teacher and mentor in Joliet, IL is too. Wheaton (IL) Franciscans grabbed a bunch of my cards and vowed action. Benedictine Sisters in Lisle, IL are on the case. I’ve also tapped into the BVMs in Dubuque, IA. And I’m just getting started.

When I speak to people about families experiencing homelessness, as I did recently to the Naperville Rotary, the reaction tends to be “what can I do to help?” Rotary members donated a mountain of diapers and kids’ socks in response to the HEAR US plea for these essential items. But I want more. They agreed to help push for passage of HCYA, with dozens of members taking postcards, promising to take action.

Naperville Rotary Members donated piles of diapers and kids’ socks to HEAR US. Photo Diane Nilan

My “home” area has two area congresspersons who sit on the US House Committee on Financial Services, which oversees the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Our bipartisan HCYA grassroots campaign, initiated by former IL legislators, will get HUD to align their definition of homelessness with the definition used by the US Department of Education, written by Illinois activists, myself included.

IL Congressmen Casten (center) and Foster (right) Photo Diane Nilan

Why is this important? Because millions of families and youth do not fit HUD’s extremely narrow definition, keeping them from getting housing assistance to end their homelessness. Congress doesn’t know how many people are homeless. Neither do local and state legislators and agency heads.

According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, a prominent WV newspaper,

“The West Virginia State education officials and Senator Joe Manchin, the state’s former governor, admitted the number of homeless students is likely much higher than reported by counties because of the difficulty of accurately counting students who are doubled up.

More troubling, they reported,

“Manchin said the state education department did not share the number of homeless students with him or his wife, Gayle, during his five-year tenure as West Virginia governor from 2005 to 2010. Gayle Manchin served as the West Virginia secretary of Education and the Arts from 2017 until March 2018.

“The WV education department reported 9,025 homeless students in 2017.

‘The Department of Education should have shared this information,’ the senator said. ‘This wasn’t talked about.’”

This sounds complicated, but it’s not. You just have to pay attention, as the nuns would remind you.

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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