By PAUL SIMS
Last December, Diane Nilan was reading headlines on homelessness when she came across a story about the Dec. 28 apartment fire which killed three women and six children in Starkville.
Nilan is the founder of Hear Us Inc., described on its website as a national non-profit “dedicated to giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth.” She’s also a blogger on http://www.change.org/ .
“I looked into the story and found the typical elements that cover or obscure homelessness,” she said, adding that the mother who rented the apartment took in a single woman and another mother with three children. In a news article, there was a reference to one or more of them having fallen on hard times, Nilan said.
“’Hard times’ is a euphemism many times for homelessness,” she said.
Around February, Nilan conducted an initial meeting with Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman.
Nilan says she hopes “the legacy of the tragedy could serve as the flashpoint to create a stronger, compassionate response to those experiencing hard times.”
Nilan is also a filmmaker who has developed a couple of videos related to homelessness.
She says she talked with city officials “about the overall reality. There’s a lack of a cohesive response to families having hard times. There are agencies trying to help; for a number of reasons it’s not a cohesive response.”
Wiseman describes the first meeting
as a “nice visit,” in which they “basically talked about what she does promoting homelessness awareness and policies that help prevent homelessness.”
Nilan added “This is a very common dilemma in communities. A lot of times it takes a tragedy to bring about change. It’s certainly my hope that the forces that brought us together will maybe develop stronger responses to family tragedies and crises.”
Last week, she stopped in for a follow-up visit with Wiseman, who said it “was also a good visit” in which she brought her latest video and provided him with a pamphlet developed by organizations in Mississippi on homelessness prevention policy ideas. He said “ ... that was very helpful. I was not aware that had been published.”
The next day, Nilan conducted an interview at the Starkville Daily News on her interest in Starkville and the subject of homelessness.
For 15 years, Nilan ran a large shelter in Illinois in the Joliet and Aurora areas outside Chicago, housing an average of 120 people a night.
She says she got involved in getting legislation passed at the state and federal levels to allow homeless children to get an education.
Five years ago, Nilan sold her town-home and bought a recreational vehicle so she could “travel across the country and chronicle homelessness in non-urban America.”
Understanding the issues
She’s developed a documentary film where children talk about what it’s like to be homeless called “My Own Four Walls.” Since then, she’s worked with documentary-making professor Laura Vazquez at Northern Illinois University. The latest work is called “On the Edge” and it focuses on women, Nilan said.
Last week, Wiseman answered questions springing from some of the concerns Nilan raised.
“I think every community would do well to understand better issues brought about by poverty and the conditions of displacement, temporary homelessness and permanent homeless which can be present even in a rural community,” the mayor said.
When asked what resources the city applies toward homelessness, Wiseman said: “We don’t have anything that goes directly toward homelessness prevention. We have the program through the Electric Department that enables people to make donations along with their electric bills.”
Also, Prairie Opportunity administers the LIHEAP program, which aids in payment of utilities. The organization also handles administration for a weatherization program which allows for physical improvements to be made to help” residences become “more energy efficient and keeping energy costs as low as possible,” the mayor said.
Also, Helping Hands of Oktibbeha County is a resource, he said. “Several faith-based organizations set it up as a way to pool resources to help; they reach further than utility bills; they have broad discretion to help people in need,” Wiseman said.
When asked how he would assess how the community at large addresses the subject of homelessness, Wiseman said: “This is a very caring community. We have lots of both government and non-government organizations that are concerned with the issue of homelessness and also the issue of poverty in general and the effect it has on the community. I think there’s a great deal of awareness and desire to mitigate the condition of poverty and every thing it causes as much as possible.”
‘Room for improvement’
The mayor also said: “I think there’s always room for improvement. Until you live in a poverty-free community that’s a challenge that remains for the community as a whole. Every citizen should be bothered if there is even one citizen struggling in an impoverished state.”
When asked what city officials and the community at large are doing to address homelessness and prevent what happened about this time last year, the mayor said:
“One of the things I worked to do in the immediate aftermath was learn what the charitable organizations in our community have to offer. That’s a good dialogue for all of us to have so that we can target needs that arise in our community and also that we have a greater awareness of what’s being being done by different organizations in our community. It helps to have that understanding and be on the same page to maximize our efforts,” Wiseman said. “ ... I sought out leaders of all of the charitable organizations that were dealing with poverty and we had one-on-ones,” he said, adding it “certainly left me with a greater understanding about the resources available to address poverty.”
Wiseman says officials also talked over “and how we can do it better” and are “continuing that ongoing dialog.”
Nilan says she will “nurture contacts here” so she can “may be serve as a resource and impetus to make sure families and youth in this community have” affordable housing and education.”
Her interest is “certainly with the attitude that I want to be of assistance,” Nilan said.
She said she’ll be visiting on occasion and possibly conducting a speaking engagement through either Mississippi State University or the Starkville School District, where she says she’s also made local contacts.
Also, she says she is working on a new film and says she “would love to do a geographically-diverse” project.
“I’m doing a short film on homeless toddlers (and) would be happy to spend some time here filming if that works out,” she said.
For information, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org , visit http://www.hearus.us/  or call (630) 225-5012.