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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

Nilan gets ready for another leg of her cross-country journey in "Tillie," the road weary motor home in which she has clocked 130,000 miles across 48 states since she began, in 2005.

My solo journey to chronicle invisible homelessness among families and youth commenced in November 2005, me behind the unfamiliar wheel of the 27’ rig that the bank and I now own. Confident that homeless kids would not be scarce beyond the Chicago metro area and that I’d be able to depict their plight and promise, I aimed this lumbering vehicle—my home since unloading my townhouse for this house-on-wheels—down this nation’s backroads, ready to point video and still cameras at people and sights before me.

Before this horrific post-economic-meltdown, things were bad, but the dire sights unfolding before me shocked me. Melding my housing inspector, shelter director, and poverty advocate’s mind and eye, I witnessed an obvious erosion of people’s quality of life in nonurban areas. Pathetic housing stock, empty storefronts, overcapacity shelters, and shredded safety nets signaled the devastation that this denial-prone nation was ignoring. Stories from kids and parents, east coast to west, confirmed the undocumented depth of homelessness while illuminating courageous resilience.

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Madison, FL.

Mid-December in northern Florida can get cold. But that's too bad for people in homeless situations unless it's really cold, usually below freezing. Only then do sparsely located emergency overnight shelters open. I can't imagine what it's like when it's a degree or two above the opening standard.

Reno, NV.

Driving down one of the seedier streets of this city, I spotted this motel and kids playing in the parking lot and in the open hallways. Knowing that families often turn to motels as an escape from life on the streets (at the time in 2009, Reno had no family shelter), I pondered life as a child using motel railings as playground equipment.

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Phoenix, AZ.

During the process of filming our documentary, on the edge, director Laura Vazquez and I visited the Watkins Overflow Shelter in a warehouse provided to United Methodist Outreach Ministries (UMOM) by the City of Phoenix. Because of my background as a former shelter director, this sign spoke to me, and I shuddered at the scope of homelessness among families and women in this city.

Fairmount, GA.

On a dreary day in March 2010, I ventured onto the backroads of northwest Georgia, an area devastated by the housing industry's demise because this is the home of carpet manufacturing. The closed tiny food bank beckoned, causing me to wonder about their food supplies in this time of economic turmoil. The rest of the town looked like it would be in need of a bailout. Probably not going to happen...

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