When life gets discouraging, it’s good to pause and rejoice in small victories. August 2013 is the 20th anniversary of “Charlie’s Bill,” officially called the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act.
The driving force behind this bill was Diane Nilan, former director of Aurora’s Hesed House homeless shelter. Back in August 1993, a mother staying at the shelter was told her children could not return to the District 204 schools they previously attended prior to becoming homeless. Both she and Nilan felt that the stability of familiar friends, teachers, and surroundings would be of great benefit as the family went through this otherwise traumatic experience.
The district took legal action to keep the children out. Happily, the family was able to find housing in the district and it became a moot point, but Nilan realized the federal McKinney Homeless Education Law that spoke to this sort of situation was far too vague, so she and a small team of advocates decided to work toward improved state legislation.
Photojournalist Pat Van Doren, a longtime member of the Naperville Sun staff, collaborated with Nilan, and took a picture of Charlie. It became the face of “Charlie’s Bill,” the new legislation that would clearly allow children to continue attending school in the district that had attended prior to becoming homeless.
“The fact that we got ordinary citizens to come together and get behind Charlie’s Bill was at the root of its success,” said Nilan as we sipped iced tea together.
Ten years later, Charlie’s Bill became the cornerstone for the federal McKinney-Vento legislation that gave homeless students across the nation improved educational rights.
“Where is Charlie now?” I asked.
Nilan assured me he’s doing fine. He’s in his 20s. He has a job and a family. “We’re even Facebook friends now,” she said with a laugh. “When I told him about all the kids who have been able to keep attending school because of him, he asked, ‘do you think all those kids are mad at me?’”
Charlie has kept his sense of humor and is a testament to the strong spirit of so many kids who spend part of their childhood homeless.
In 2005, Nilan sold everything she owned (including house and car) and started the non-profit “Hear Us” to ratchet up her advocacy and work to give homeless families a voice and more visibility.
“If someone had told me 20 years ago that today I’d be driving around in a motorhome, as a homeless advocate, I’d have thought they were crazy,” she said.
One of the things Nilan does is making sure school districts understand the law. Her video “My Own 4 Walls” helps her bring the voices of homeless children to school officials. Those voices are powerful.
“Some schools really are doing their best,” she said, “while others need a little tutoring.”
Right now there is a school district in Kansas City, Mo., that says they’d love to help homeless children, but if they don’t have an address, there’s nothing they can do. I’m guessing Nilan will soon be helping them better understand their role.
Nilan was recently appointed to the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Her alma mater, the University of St. Francis, has selected her for their “Sister Clare” award for her efforts to address homelessness.
To learn more about Diane Nilan’s work, go to www.HearUs.us. The books, videos, and information you’ll find there helps in spreading a better understanding of homelessness to schools, churches, and individuals. Help her raise awareness about this segment of the population that is so vulnerable.