On any given night, 500,000 people are homeless in the United States. And, on any given day or night, Diane Nilan, founder of HEAR US, Inc. and proponent of Charlie’s Bill that allows homeless children to go to school, can be found advocating for those who do not have homes or a voice.
Nilan, a graduate of the University of St. Francis (USF), was honored by her alma mater on March 12 with the Sister Clare Award in recognition of her “lifetime’s work” with homeless people. The Sister Clare Award is presented as part of the university’s Women’s History Month celebration and is given to “women of light” who walk in the ways of St. Clare, who was first a sister.
St. Clare, was one of the first followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan Order. Both lived in the 13th Century and together they were dedicated to help the poor. “Clare and Francis showed us how to live as ‘brother and sister’ in Christ,” said Sr. Mary Elizabeth Imler, O.S.F., USF’s vice president of mission integration, during the invocation. “They looked at the same God, but from the different angles of and with the gifts and sensitivities of a woman and a man.”
Nilan, who in 2005, sold her house, car and belongings to start the not-for-profit HEAR US, to champion the cause of homeless people, was the driving force in the passage “Charlie’s Bill,” known as the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, which 10 years later led to the federal McKinney-Vento legislation that gave improved educational rights to homeless children nationwide. Charlie’s Bill’s 20th anniversary was in August 2013, and Nilan is still a driving force as an advocate for homeless people. Today, she drives (and lives in) a motorhome, traveling throughout the country to educate schools and others regarding the plight of homeless children. Her video, “My Own Four Walls,” won the Outstanding Media Award in 2007 from the National Association of Homeless Children and Youth.
In her book, “Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness,” Nilan maintains that education is the only way out of homelessness. To learn more about Nilan’s work and HEAR US, visit www.hearus.us.
Nilan began her work with homeless people in Joliet, starting the Daybreak Shelter. She then served as associate director of Hesed House in Aurora, the largest homeless shelter in Illinois, outside of Chicago.