DeKALB – Diane Nilan has spent her adult life helping the homeless. Now, she is trying to help a DeKalb County homeless shelter – by selling her own mobile home.
Nilan, a Naperville woman who has devoted the last decade of her life to chronicling the plight of homeless children, is selling her 27-foot Gulf Stream Yellowstone Classic C motor home, which she calls "Tillie." Ten percent of the proceeds from Tillie's sale will go to Hope Haven of DeKalb.
As president and founder of HEAR US: Giving Voice and Visibility to Homeless Children and Youth, Nilan has driven over 183,000 miles in Tillie since 2005, interviewing homeless children for a series of documentaries. She is hoping to get $25,000 for the motor home. Whoever buys Tillie can write a separate check to Hope Haven for its 10 percent so they can claim the charitable tax deduction.
"This is perhaps the most unusual fundraiser Hope Haven has ever had," Hope Haven Executive Director Lesly Wicks said. "It's a nice gesture. Diane does everything very thoughtfully, so it makes sense if she's going to sell her mobile home, she wants someone else to benefit from it."
Every year, Wicks said, Hope Haven receives about $100,000 in private donations and another $35,000 from fundraisers – "a significant part" of its $1.1 million budget.
Nilan said Hope Haven is her "shelter of choice," and Wicks lets her park there whenever she's in town. Besides working with Northern Illinois University Professor of Media Studies Laura Vasquez and Media Relations Specialist Tom Parisi on her documentaries, Nilan also has Tillie's maintenance done at Mike's Auto and Truck Repair in DeKalb. Nilan said Mike and Kathy Craft will provide Tille's clean bill of health to any potential buyer.
"It's nice to be a friend of Diane," Wicks said. "She is the rock star of the homeless community, not only in the state, but nationally."
Nilan was instrumental in getting a 1994 law passed guaranteeing educational rights to homeless students. She was finishing a project in Kane County, helping schools better understand homeless children, when she decided to sell her townhouse and most of her possessions to buy Tillie.
"I honestly had no idea what I was doing," she said.
Though the typical image of homelessness is set against an urban backdrop, Nilan mainly visited small, back roads towns.
"There's more rural poverty than urban," Wicks said. "It's not as visible in DeKalb. ...The county is so big, we don't have people sleeping in the park or pushing carts. ...But you never know, the waitress who serves you could be homeless, so could the person working at Walmart. Homelessness is the invisible working poor."
Last December, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported there are more than 57,000 homeless children in Illinois. Nationally, there were 1.6 million homeless children in 2010, a 38 percent increase from 2007.
Wicks said there are more homeless children than adults in Hope Haven facilities. Currently, they are housing more than 40 children, down from a high of 54 earlier this summer. They range in age from birth to 17 years old, though most are school age.
"The face of homelessness is young," Wicks said.
Hope Haven started in a rehabbed laundromat in 1990, as an offshoot of PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter). It served 400 nights of shelter and 800 meals in its first year. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, Hope Haven averaged 90 people a night at its emergency shelter and transitional housing program at 1145 Rushmore Drive in DeKalb, and another 26 at its permanent housing project for chronically homeless individuals with disabilities at 965 W. Dresser Road in DeKalb.
Between the two facilities, Hope Haven provided 27,000 nights of shelter and 55,000 meals last year. Wicks said there is no peak season.
The emergency shelter is divided into a men's dormitory, a women's dormitory, and a dormitory for women and children. The transitional housing program has 12 bedrooms and can host 18 families. The building has a dining room, kitchen, community room, laundry room, playroom, garden and two classrooms.
If no one has purchased Tillie by Friday, Aug. 15, the Dresser Road location will be the site of the "Garage-less Tillie Sale" Aug. 15 and 16. Anyone interested in the motor home will be allowed to inspect it. There will also be a sale of other items.
To learn more about purchasing Tillie, call 630-267-5424. To donate to Hope Haven, call 815-758-5765.