15 Years on the Road
One woman, in one RV, exposes America’s homeless family epidemic
Editor’s Note: Chances are pretty good that you’ve never met anyone as selfless as Diane Nilan. In 2005, after decades working in homeless shelters, Diane left her job, sold most of her possessions, bought an RV, and set out to travel the country on a mission to reveal the true depths of America’s homelessness epidemic. Along the way, she interviewed and filmed the people she met, in order to expose the magnitude of an issue that only seems to worsen. Her focus was on families and children.
400,000 miles, 49 states (all but Alaska!), several documentaries, and one pandemic later, Diane left the road, parked her RV, and settled in to write a memoir. In it, she chronicles her experiences, detailing the lives and the predicaments of a diverse group of people who are often overlooked, hidden, and forgotten.
Her new book, Dismazed and Driven: My Look at Family Homelessness in America, has just been released. It takes readers inside the leaky tents, broken vans, decrepit motel rooms and cramped shelters where millions of families and children struggle with homelessness on any given day in the U.S. Her goal, as it’s always been, is to force much-needed change in a system that continues to fail the most vulnerable among us.
Diane explains, “I’ve witnessed and documented the unheralded survival of courageous parents and kids whose homes have vanished for countless reasons. I wanted to hear from those most familiar with homelessness, those most invisible and most misunderstood. I wanted to be their instrument to let their voices be heard and their faces be seen.”
The Reporters Inc. is honored to present these exclusive photos and excerpts from Dismazed and Driven (as well as links to some of Diane’s videos). These are stories that must be heard, and thankfully, Diane Nilan is telling them.
After a few years on the road, Diane says she could easily identify vehicles that serve as shelters for the homeless.
A Veteran, His Three Sons, and Greta
In Mobile, Alabama in 2012, I met Jason, a veteran. He was living in a small camper with his three teen-aged sons and their adorable dog, Greta. They welcomed me into their world. Jason gave me a tour while his sons stood by. Living in a camper myself helps erase the gaps of shame. Their camper, holding four guys and a dog, was an old, leaky model with much wrong with it. It wasn’t used for travel, so that helped. Their shower didn’t work, which gave them more storage space.
The campground they lived in cost $400 a month. Relatively cheap, but it offered nothing special except a safe place to park their “home.” Jason worked. The boys went to school. Greta, their small Schnauzer, guarded their empire. Unbeknownst to many, Mobile gets more rain than Seattle, making the leaky flaw of their RV a factor that caused more than just a minor inconvenience. Some things I know from experience. I’ve had my share of leaky roofs.
We’ve come to accept these alternative, inadequate living conditions as normal. We think it’s okay for a family of four to cram in space made for one or two, to live hand-to-mouth, to worry and other upheavals. We have watched the standard of living soar into the stratosphere for the so-called one percent, while the bulk of the American populace struggles to survive abject poverty.
I call foul. The nation’s “check engine” light is flashing. Time for a drastic overhaul. Lucky for you, America, I’m your homelessness mechanic.
Diane met Jason, a military veteran, and his three teen sons (and their schnauzer, Greta), when they were living in a tiny, rundown RV in Mobile, Alabama.
A Grueling Task Before I Left Town
I had the honor of meeting “Alicia,” a mother of three young children, just days before she died. They had stayed at the Hope Haven shelter in DeKalb, Illinois. It was run by a longtime friend of mine, Lesly Wicks. In October 2007, just before I headed west to film and make a series of presentations, Lesly asked if I’d film an interview with Alicia so her children would have a memory. Yikes! Of course. Yes. But the scope of this interview was far from what I’d imagined doing.
The first scheduled time for the interview needed to be rescheduled, Alicia was not feeling well enough. We put it off a few days. I connected with my friend Gary, the shelter manager. You’ll meet Gary in Chapter 10. He’s the guy who was scared to travel by his “Black-self” across the country. We went in and he introduced me to Alicia. I also met “Derrick,” a friend of hers from the shelter, and her kids, ages 10, 6, and 3. The guys took the kids somewhere so we could have privacy.
Alicia sat on the couch, hooked up to oxygen. I tried to explain as gently as possible what I thought we should do. Having no clue how this was supposed to be done, I knew I needed to hold it together until I got out of her apartment.
This determined mother used her short time at the shelter to put the pieces back together after personal crises. She earned her GED, became certified as a nursing assistant, and got a job. Bingo! They moved out. All looked good. About two months before we met, Alicia called Lesly and said she was having trouble breathing. Lesly urged her to call the doctor and offered whatever support she could give.
Alicia’s life swirled out of control. The doctor visit, heart surgery, and discovery of inoperative cancer brought changes she never expected. Was this trauma related? I can only suspect yes. The impact on her already-traumatized children agonized Alicia and all who knew and loved them. Alicia’s sister lived in town and was willing to take the children.
Alicia struggled to talk, especially when speaking about her children. The entire interview lasted less than 10 minutes. We chatted while waiting for everyone to return. I’m not good at small-talk. When I saw her using toilet tissue on her nose I winced. How can you use that sandpaper on your tender nose? She laughed. I gave her a new box of Ultra Soft Puffs, my tissue of choice.
When Gary, Derrick and the kids came back, I left. It was a beautiful day for a drive in the country. I hadn’t selected a route so I just headed in a general direction, north and west. I was numb. Alicia and her kids’ faces stuck in my mind. This interview took a toll on me. Life took a toll on Alicia. And her family. She died about a week later. I put the interview together and added music from a friend, Sara Thomsen, who wrote these lyrics and sings the song, Holy Angels. She gave me permission to share it with you here, too.
You are held by holy angels;
holy angels all around you.
Hush, now, sleep child,
sing the holy angels
We are holding you.
You can rest.
Morning will come, child,
The dawn will break through the darkness.
We are holding you
through the light of the newborn day.
A little girl, about the age of one of Alicia’s children, plays in a park near the shelter where Diane met Alicia.
Three Generations Lost
Saundra, her daughter, Sandra, and her 13-year old granddaughter, Sonya, lived in a central valley Oregon city. Saundra agreed to let me interview them in September, 2019. The school district’s homeless liaison arranged for us to meet at her office. A well-appointed space with full bathroom and laundry, these two offerings were appreciated by those of us living a nomadic existence. I could hear the three engaged in family chatter as they took turns using the shower. They relished the relatively luxurious bathroom amenities—clean towels, hotel soap and shampoo—as much as they appreciated the opportunity for a hot shower.
When they emerged, they waited in the kitchenette. The liaison made sure they had plenty of snacks and drinks. I interviewed them separately in an adjacent room. Saundra settled into a comfy chair and let loose the excruciating tale of her fall into homelessness. It started when the modest duplex she lived in was sold and the new owners raised the rent. She tried finding a place that would take her Section 8 housing voucher. She ended up living in a small car for several months with her then 11-year-old granddaughter, two dogs and a cat. Sonya’s mother lived elsewhere. Sandra dealt with multiple problems that made it impossible for her to fulfill her parental responsibilities.
Because they had moved out of the duplex before the eviction could be served, Saundra didn’t lose her housing certificate. A landlord agreed to rent to her. They let her move in. Then came a snafu with one of the utility companies that claimed she owed more than she thought. Local agencies offered limited help—not enough to take care of utilities. So, they went back to the streets. This time Saundra moved into a bedraggled, mold-filled old RV. It sat in a parking lot ignored by city code inspectors. Her granddaughter moved in with a friend.
Saundra’s story followed the now-familiar pattern of other struggling families. Her unexpected responsibility of raising a grandchild was daunting enough. Add to it the need to find a place that would take a housing voucher coupled with the cost of utility security deposits and past due balances, battling collection agencies, stress, and health crisis. Homelessness again was inevitable.
I interviewed Sonya, the granddaughter. She shared the logistical side of their experiences—how hot it was in the car during summer months, how hard it was to sleep in their crowded car, and the joy of being able to shower at a friend’s house. She got ready for school in the jam-packed car. She recognized that some people were scary. She fretted their highly-mobile existence. She observed that her grandmother “needs a lot of help, and there’s nobody helping her.”
The dogs became collateral damage—one dog got away as they were trying to straighten out their belongings in the car. They never found him. The other also ran away and was picked up by the pound. It would have taken $1,000 to get him back.
School offered free lunch: a plus that had its ups and downs. Sonya’s close friends learned of her plight. She was bullied by others. She managed to keep her grades up. She was able to participate in school activities, like field trips. She astutely recognized that she wasn’t the only kid in this situation. And she demolished the stereotypes of homelessness, saying “Just because we’re homeless, it doesn’t mean we’re dirty, gross, and gonna steal from you.”
I suspect this family didn’t have a lot going for them before homelessness hit. Still, they were doing the best they could. Did they make the best decisions? Probably not. But who does? They had no room for error. Once they fell off track, they had no way to get back on. It takes money. It takes landlords who can overlook flaws in a family’s rental history. It takes resources to wipe out past utility arrearages. It takes guidance from someone with the family’s best interest at heart.
No. They were lost, and I’d be surprised if they got back to whatever could be considered normal.
Saundra, a grandmother trying to care for her 12-year-old granddaughter, agonized over their inability to get out of their vehicle and into a simple apartment in Albany, Oregon.
Lost in the Oregon Woods
As a long-time camper, I have a pretty good idea what the hardships of tent camping include. But I have no idea what it entails with kids involved. I got a glimpse in October 2007. I was in Oregon for a national conference for homeless liaisons.
I connected with a school district homeless liaison in McMinnville, a mid-size city about an hour southwest of Portland. She was helping a family—mom, boyfriend, and three young girls. They were living in the woods, in a tent, on a church’s property. The liaison and I met early in one morning and headed out to the woods. The family agreed to let me hang with them a few days.
The forecast threatened rain. I was happy when it didn’t. The temps were in the mid-30s and I had my camera gear. We first greeted Michael. He came out of the tent while Gina helped her girls finish getting ready for school. I could hear them—brushing hair, finding jackets, getting the kittens out of the way.
Their dome tent was one of the larger ones. They got it for $50, on sale from Walmart. They had a little propane stove running, providing a risky level of welcome heat. They were the only campers left in what was previously a small encampment on the edge of church property. They landed here in May, with no options.
Their tenting area abutted a municipal park. The girls and mom walked to the park bathroom, about a block away, to finish getting cleaned up. Then Michael walked them to the bus stop. We made plans to connect later at the library.
After school I met with the girls and Michael. The kids got to work on the computers. Gina, who was there for another appointment, joined us.
They told me their plans. They needed to hit the grocery store and find a can of propane for their stove. We walked to the local bus stop and hopped on. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sense of camaraderie between the bus riders and driver.
At the store, Michael headed to find propane. I stayed with Gina and her sweet but rambunctious girls who considered grocery shopping entertainment. Gina’s challenge? Figure out what foods she could afford that she could easily cook on their little propane stove.
As they shopped, the girls saw their classmates and waved. It was a challenge to keep track of the threesome. Rose, the youngest, 5-ish, was super hyper. Crystal, the middle girl, about 9-years-old, wandered off in her own little world. The oldest, 12-year-old Angelina, tried to act cool. Gina’s struggles with controlling the girls became evident and painful to watch as this expedition continued. The checkout line, with the standard tempting candy display, was the finale. Gina let the girls each pick out their favorite.
Michael, Gina, and their three children called the Oregon woods home for six months, while searching for housing. Photos by Rob Finch.
Mike returned with propane. He could focus on tasks at hand. The bigger problem of how they would move from camping to housing seemed beyond him.
He and Gina told me about the difficulties of getting a housing authority voucher. They felt like they had to hide their relationship from the Department of Human Services. With the 1996 changes in welfare policies, few two-parent households qualified for assistance. Households with unmarried couples were even less likely to get help. Yeah, I get the theory. But the reality complicates things. Michael had a scheme that involved he and Gina getting married. She wasn’t too hot on that idea.
So, poor Gina, who had a grueling day with interviews and other stuff, went “home” to cook pork chops on their little stove. She had one pan, limited propane and no food prep space. She navigated a cramped tent, with three hyper kids, two kittens, and Michael. The monsoon-like Oregon November weather kept everyone inside.
No TV, no electricity, no running water, no privacy. The park bathroom, when open, required a creepy walk through the woods, down a winding, treacherous path. Angelina and Michael headed off in the rain to wash dishes. My hackles were raised, worried about the nefarious possibilities of that arrangement.
The other reality? Critters. A rat had gotten into their not-well-secured metal cooler. The one they kept right outside their tent to store food. When they found the rat, it was dead. And stinky. Michael took care of the disposal task. Gina kept things fairly organized in the tent, a challenge because they had nowhere for stuff. Having rats or other critters in the tent was a constant hazard.
I couldn’t help but think about the strategy of camping for this family. Laundry was an expensive logistical challenge. I could understand why they’d have hygiene issues, with no hot shower. Privacy, other than their location being out of sight, was impossible in that small tent. When one (or more) of them got sick, what happened then? No car to hop into to get to the clinic. Grocery shopping, as I witnessed, was a grueling task, and required money that they did not have. Cooking and cleaning would challenge the most capable homemaker. And the kids? How did they do homework?
How many families endure these kinds of living conditions? At least this family had tremendous support from their homeless liaison. Without her, they would be totally lost. Stuck in a tent in the woods, dealing with rats, rain and relentless cold winds. I couldn’t help but wonder what lessons Gina’s girls would remember from their months of camping.
After I left the area, I got word that Gina and the girls got a place through the housing authority. After six months in a tent, that had to be a relief. But the relief also brought the challenge of moving from what I would describe as a feral lifestyle to civilization. They crawled out of the woods into an apartment.
I know from my camping days how easy it is to get a little messy. And that was for me, for a week, without kids. Evidently, they had issues keeping their new housing in proper order. It was an adjustment that needed to be made or they’d lose their home. If they lost that opportunity, they would be lost for sure.
Some of the many dwellings in which Diane has encountered America’s hidden homeless.
Idaho Strong, But Lost
Dads are stereotypically the family breadwinner. The homeless liaison in Nampa, Idaho introduced me to Byron, a strong looking dad who cried openly in front of me. He, his infirm wife and their four kids were “camping in the backyard of a friend’s house on the outskirts of town.
They became homeless when property owner of the home where they’d lived for more than five years told them to get out. He was selling the place. Unable to find another home they could afford, the family retreated to a small camper and makeshift accommodations. Their hardscrabble campsite reflected the desperate and destitute reality that homelessness brought.
Nampa, a mid-size city in western Idaho, was Byron’s hometown. He and his family returned when he needed to care for his ailing mother. She later died. They settled there. They lived their version of normal until the eviction. That changed everything. It provided challenges for this devoted dad that tested his fortitude.
During the interview, Angie, his wife of over 20 years, sat in the small, dark, cramped camper, surrounded by her beloved dogs and cat. A botched bariatric surgery left her unable to eat most foods. Byron told me she was dying of malnutrition.
Byron and Angie also had a severely disabled son who suffered a brain hemorrhage when he was born. Byron described their son’s situation, “He lost 80% of the front left lobe of his brain. He’s 15, a little over 6 foot, 250 (lbs.), and functions at the level of a five-year-old.”
Complaints from neighbors about the family’s camping area spurred the authorities to threaten them. When I met the family, they had just days to move on. Where? They didn’t know.
To earn money, Byron did serious scrapping. He filled his pickup truck bed with metal. They had a washer and dryer, but it was in storage, so he spent $100 a week doing laundry. As he described his efforts to find more suitable housing arrangements, he underscored the insane gauntlet for income-challenged families. Leasing application fees for the adults, anyone over 18, would set this family back $200 each time. Moving required pet deposits adding hundreds more to the process. Untenable.
The worst was his description of their hopeless situation. They didn’t qualify for any state assistance. Getting their kids to school every day was close to impossible. It would be more so when they pulled up stakes. “Now I have to play hide-me from the state so they don’t take my kids, especially my special-needs child,” he said, voice breaking. “You want to destroy me? Take him…” and he turned away and walked a few steps to regain his composure, giving me time to regain mine.
This family was lost, not because they took a wrong turn. They were upended by the economics of housing and the lack of options. Their previously normal, stable existence shattered. Their makeshift shelter reflected their deteriorating situation. As much as Byron tried to hold things together, he couldn’t. I’m not sure who could have. I know I couldn’t.
Byron, a dedicated dad in Idaho, broke down as he described his family’s plight to Diane, especially that of his severely disabled son. His family, forced from their home of more than five years, lived in a ramshackle, makeshift shelter while they searched for something better.
Courage in the Face of Danger
I encountered Julianna on my first cross-country trip back in 2006 in Tempe, Arizona. Julianna had already “come out” about her history of domestic violence while working with a local women’s group in town. Her determination to be part of our film project far outweighed her fear of her ex.
When she was young, Julianna pursued her life’s dream. She joined the U.S. Army. There she met the man of her dreams, also in the Army. That man would, in time, become her nightmare. Shortly after they married Julianna got pregnant. She retired from the military to care for their family. Each time her husband returned from a tour of duty she became pregnant. As their relationship deteriorated, this gregarious mother felt trapped and looked for a way out.
As much as she loved raising her family, Julianna wanted to stop having children. Her husband made it very clear that getting her tubes tied was not an option. He raped her at will. She had no choice but to submit to his violence-fueled demands. She knew that involving the military police in their marital disputes would only come back on her and the kids. Julianna displayed faux patterns of familial bliss. Her life seesawed between excruciating eruptions of her husband’s anger and brutality when he was home, and deceptive lulls as he was deployed. She withered as she endured his sexual demands which subsequently resulted in pregnancy until she had four children. Then something snapped.
Her job was her sanctuary. She worked as a teacher’s aide in the local grade school. With her bubbly personality and ability to bond with even the hardest-to-love child, she was treasured by her students and colleagues. Few knew of Julianna’s alternate reality. One social worker, the district’s homeless liaison, sensed something going on. Over time that liaison developed a trusting relationship with the beleaguered mother.
As they spoke of her scarce options, Julianna laid out her two-pronged bottom line: “I don’t want my kids to change schools, and I won’t go back to him.” She knew nothing of the federal McKinney-Vento Act that protected the educational rights of homeless students. The law allows parents to decide which school options are in the best interest of the children. The liaison assured Julianna that her kids could stay in their schools, with help to make it feasible. With that in place, Julianna made her move just as her husband threatened to harm her eldest son. She had taken her husband’s beatings, but no way in hell was she going to let him hit any of the children. She ushered the kids out of the house and down the street to a neighbor’s house.
Because the local shelter didn’t accept older boys (her oldest son was 14 at the time), Julianna couldn’t go there. She refused to split up the family. Julianna and her kids endured what so many families in similar situations go through—a succession of nights sleeping on floors and on the couches of friends and acquaintances. Their piles of plastic bags and bins of possessions traveled with them to their bare-bones, temporary accommodations. Doubled up. At the mercy of their host family. As precarious as their arrangements were, with several moves over the period of their homelessness, her courage brought survival.
Julianna during her military days, with President George H.W. Bush; Julianna and her four children at the Grand Canyon in 2008.
Julianna’s life did not turn out the way she’d planned. Her extended family couldn’t provide the support needed. She lacked financial wherewithal. She didn’t have a car. What she did have was a nontraditional support network. Friends and coworkers extended a hand, a floor, a car, and a listening ear.
When I met up with her in 2008, Julianna and her kids had recently moved into a subsidized apartment. During the filming process she expounded on her dreams. Buy a home. Get a college degree. Become a teacher. I’ve heard plenty of women share their plans for getting back on their feet. Few expressed it with as much determination as Julianna. I believed her.
Julianna has clawed her way back to self-sufficiency, with remarkable inner strength that needs to be bottled and sold. She and her kids didn’t start out homeless. Working parents, middle-class neighborhood, good schools, plenty of friends.
Julianna took her role as mother seriously. She established “Julianna and Company,” a family “business” that was focused on rebuilding their lives. She sought and found constructive activities to occupy her kids. She embraced their new phase: a home of their own, bedrooms for the kids, a sense of order and relative control of their lives. She learned to manage a household, pay bills, keep her kids on the right track and more. Friends helped her get a car.
Despite the semblance of normal, the entire family struggled with trauma. Julianna knew they all needed help to get their heads on straight. After what they’d been through, she sought opportunities to get counseling for all of them.
One of the few times I crossed a professional boundary with any of the people I interviewed was when Julianna asked me if I’d take her and her kids up to the Grand Canyon. My RV offered sufficient room for her kids who sprawled out and slept the whole way: a five-hour drive. We got to the park and saw snow on the ground. The kids awakened, none of them dressed in appropriate snow clothing. That didn’t matter. They bolted out of my camper and frolicked like otters in a river. They threw snowballs and chased each other around. None of them noticed the Grand Canyon just a few yards away.
Julianna and I finally convinced them to give this Wonder of the World a bit of their attention. It was a tough sell. Romping in snow won the day. We had dinner, then drove to a nearby motel. I put the family up for the night while I slept in my humble digs. I was happy to have made this field trip possible.
A homeless mother and her children await a meal at a family shelter in Lafayette, Louisiana; a homeless teen looks for a new place to stay in Jacksonville, Florida.
What’s Really Scary?
The dangers facing families and youth in vulnerable situations of homelessness are many. Abuse of all kinds is at the top of the list. Being in a homeless situation makes people extremely vulnerable to predators.
Sex trafficking poses a tremendous risk for desperate teens and young adults. Typically, predators befriend their victims. Provide food, a place to stay, and other things to make life seem good. Once the young person is hooked, the predator coerces her/him to offer sex to strangers for pay. Of course, the predator keeps the money, and confines their victim. Sex trafficking can also trap unwitting, distressed adults. The inevitable impact on the victims ranges from trauma to death.
Parents I’ve interviewed expressed their deep fear of losing custody of their children. They fear fines or jail for abusing or neglecting their children. The children may be removed from the parents and placed into foster care. Once children are removed, parents face tremendous barriers reuniting. Even though, in most states, homelessness is not a reason on its own for removing children, the fear is real. When neglect or abuse can be documented, it is justified.
Health issues run rampant in the homeless population. Accessing medical care for children or adults is hit or mostly miss. Theoretically, children are eligible for health care under Medicaid through Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). That program is fraught with red tape and restrictions. Several states have refused to even establish it. Parents also have difficulty getting health care. High mobility adds to the complications of enrolling in a health care system. Considering the wide range of physical and mental health hazards that homeless families face, their lack of health care is dismazing.
Exposure to hazardous environments is another common risk for families experiencing homelessness. “Beggars can’t be choosers” means if someone offers a family a place to sleep, even an unsafe setting, they cannot easily refuse. Sleeping in toxic environments—car repair shops, places close to chemicals from nearby factories, garages filled with poisonous substances—has devastating impact on families, especially young children.
What is truly scary is the total disregard our federal government has for families, especially those in doubled up situations like Julianna and Company. The definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses doesn’t consider doubled up to be homeless. Therefore, Julianna’s family was not eligible for housing assistance. The battle over the definition of homelessness seems endless. But we can’t give up.
The U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homeless which came from our Charlie’s Law, includes families that have lost housing due to hardship regardless of where they land. This difference in definition means that HUD virtually ignores the millions of families and youth experiencing homelessness which the schools have identified. We have proposed legislation that will change this definition. The sad and scary thing is that many in Congress don’t see this as important. I know I’ve expounded on this seemingly obscure concept throughout the book. It’s fueled my fire from day one. We are bound and determined to get HUD’s definition aligned with the more accurate one used by the Department of Education and others.
Among other things, families not being able to get help when they lose housing puts them in great peril. They are vulnerable to being harmed by strangers (as well as those they know) just because they are desperate for a place to stay. Stranger danger isn’t always strangers.
Scary means different things to different people. Certainly, I had some scary episodes. But they were relatively mild compared to what millions of families and youth in precarious situations encounter every day.
Ask yourself, how do you react when you’re afraid? What if you lost your safety network and resources? Can you imagine what that would be like?
Those of us with any sort of solid ground beneath us have no clue what scary means.
Diane writes of her travels on the road, “Of all the breathtaking sights I’d see, these ribbons of highways always awed me. Somewhere in southwest Utah.”
To urge your congresspersons to support a change in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of homelessness, visit www.helphomelesskidsnow.org
To read Diane’s blog, click here.
To email Diane: email@example.com
To learn more about (and donate to) Diane’s nonprofit, HEAR US: click here.
Listen to Diane discuss her book, and the plight of homeless kids, at Quail Ridge Books in North Carolina via this YouTube link.
To learn about Diane’s upcoming appearances, click here.
And, to purchase your own copy of Dismazed and Driven: My Look at Family Homelessness in America, click here.
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