What We Get Wrong About Poverty

A vital lesson in family homelessness for Oshkosh, WI and beyond

Diane Nilan
4 min readMar 30


The article that caught my attention, Tiny homes help combat homeless children, came from the UW Oshkosh campus independent newspaper. Ouch! This is the response I sent them. Was I too harsh? Let me know.

Families struggle with homelessness, a daunting challenge.
Families struggle with homelessness, a daunting challenge. Photo and quote Diane Nilan

Dear Titans,

It was the headline that caught my eye, “Tiny homes help combat homeless children.” In this day and age of violence being the norm, the visual of helpless children being beat upon by homes repulsed me. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked closely with children and families experiencing homelessness for the past 35 years. And I’m a bit of a pacifist, to boot. Combat and children, a bad visual.

Then I read the story. I am encouraged and impressed by the tiny home village being created for families who’ve lost their housing. Your pointing out that family homelessness is widespread, worsening during the pandemic is spot on. Communities have grappled with, or ignored, the skyrocketing crisis of families losing their homes. Most, all?, cities and towns of all sizes lack an adequate response to this devastating condition. Few are willing to do what Oshkosh proposes.

What niggles at me, and it might just be the editorial slant, or it might reflect the unintended philosophy of the folks at Oshkosh Kids Foundation, was the top-down approach to working with families.

“Demolish poverty,” a worthy goal, but it’s not that simple, and providing housing may not be the answer to that aspiration. Family homelessness is infinitely more complex, requiring deft, sensitive and individual approaches, based on connection and community.

“[Families] are required to participate in services, so whatever brought them to homelessness in the first place, whether it was relationships or financial issues or they couldn’t get a job, they are required to do programming to help move that needle.” I get it. We think that it’s the family’s fault that they ended up in this situation. And they need fixing. But addressing homelessness isn’t the same as car repair, and even that’s complicated and expensive.

Family homelessness, from my years of witnessing, listening, reading, studying, and analyzing it, is a combination of things — some personal, some systemic. You can’t fix one aspect and ignore the others. Just like you can’t repair the bad tire and ignore the steering issues.

Requiring participation might be a tad top-down, don’t you think? We housed middle/upper income white people tend to turn to that approach when frustrated with “those people” who are in need of help. We fail to recognize the strengths of families caught in the crushing gears of poverty. We further diminish their value by ordering them to do something that may or may not be helpful, or what they need.

I’ve listened to hundreds of parents talk about their families, their homelessness, their hopes and dreams, and I’ve never heard one say they needed someone to require them to be programmed. Maybe you’re really intending to offer help and ongoing support that meets their individual needs, and it just got lost in the translation.

Most families in this skyrocketing plight have experienced trauma. I never knew anything about trauma when I ran shelters. Those 15 years of thinking I was doing the right thing probably further traumatized the families and adults I was trying to help.

Let me recommend the new book, The Myth of Normal by Dr. Gabor Maté, for a better understanding of trauma. I’d also humbly recommend my book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America, for insights into the issues causing and perpetuating homelessness bedeviling families these days.

Other new insightful books out include Poverty, By Us by Matthew Desmond, and Bootstrapped by Alissa Quart. We are finally being offered a more holistic view of poverty that more respectfully represents the millions who have fallen into the abyss that we’ve created.

Other stuff link

And, here’s my Other Stuff chart that will be a useful reminder/guide that homelessness is not a choice or personal failure. We all need to do what we can to address this preventable, avoidable denial of human need to our sisters and brothers.

Hopefully families won’t just be “placed” and forgotten. Or punished for their inability to respond to programming. They’ll appreciate relationships, guidance, and support. Getting out of homelessness is infinitely harder than getting into it.

Forgive me if I mis-read your story. But others I’ve shared it with have also picked up on the demeaning tone. We can improve our approach and attitudes, but not if it’s required top-down. What we all need is compassionate guidance and support. Hopefully that’s what I’ve accomplished. I welcome dialogue.





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