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American Almanac
Journal of Children & Poverty


Guest Voices

By Diane Nilan

Why I'm Documenting Family Homelessness in the United States, Mile After Mile

Spring 2012


Phoenix, AZ.

Wakins Overflow Shelter. I was struck by the industrial nature of efforts to house homeless families. I suppose on one hand, it's better than the lack of alternatives these dozens of families would have had to cope with if Watkins was not an option. That is a sad statement of our nation's disregard for the well-being of families.


Lafayette, LA.

Curiosity got the best of me so I moseyed over and began chatting. Sure enough, this woman and her son were homeless, vulnerably doubled-up with someone who didn't want them staying there. So mom and her seven-year-old visited this park to do laundry, shower, and have a cookout. She lacked the equipment to cook their hot dogs, so I provided tongs, paper plates, and encouragement.


DeKalb, IL.

Hope Haven shelter provides a sanctuary in this college town about 75 miles west of Chicago. This pleasant, affable mother agreed to let me photograph her baby soon to be born, another infant whose life will begin in a shelter.

Disasters aplenty, from the far-reaching destruction wreaked by Katrina to the subtle empty chairs in the local barber shop of a job-challenged community, the web of poverty covers this nation like kudzu, threatening to choke the life out of a once-proud country that took care of its own. Mother Nature, unscrupulous scammers, human nature, and hard times crumpled millions like empty beer cans, discarded along the roadside as trash.

Gallant efforts to repair, rebuild, and restore lives compete with Wall Street robber barons and deficit-distracted legislative priorities. Communities patch together sparse provisions of food and shelter. Schools stretch their purpose to include providing food, clothing and hygiene supports. Parents shrewdly weave resources out of seemingly nothing to keep a roof over their families’ heads. Youth scrape together essentials for survival, adapting to deficiency.

All the while, media’s stereotypes further confuse elected officials charged with ensuring the well-being of constituents. Congressional reports all but ignore the burgeoning numbers of homeless families and youth, concentrating on the adults accused of sullying the imagined pristine streets of has-been cities and towns. HUD’s war of words excludes the bulk of this nation’s un-housed population.

Compassion competes against cold-hearted budget cuts. The pattern of ignoring human infrastructure rises to new heights, taking down the most vulnerable into a vortex of desperation. Yet, like the pocked roadways connecting one small town with another, the thread of kindness connects human-to-human, sharing vital essentials of food, shelter and hope. I step out into a new place, filled with wonder at the stories of fortitude and goodwill.


Hingham, MA.

Wompatuck State Park. I noticed the composition of the clothes hanging on the line didn't fit the typical array. It looked more like someone washed out items in a five-gallon bucket. Speaking with the mother verified my guess: She, her husband and their 18-month-old baby were having, as she put it, "hard times." They also didn't have money for propane to heat their little rig. The temperature got down to the 30s at night. I heard them arguing—the well-worn script of the desperate income-challenged (albeit mobile) households—so I shared an "extra" electric heater with her.

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