At an outdoor eatery near the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, I witnessed a woman, whom I suspect lacked a place to live, respectfully ask diners for money. A few wordlessly complied, handing her a couple bucks. I was disturbed by this scene, as were others at nearby tables. My guess is that we were disturbed for different reasons.

For the past 35 years — as a shelter director, advocate and activist — I’ve been trying to address the problem of homelessness. In my latest efforts, as a one-woman nonprofit called HEAR US Inc. (, I’ve spent 15 years chronicling family and youth homelessness as I’ve traveled cross-country filming interviews, producing short films, giving presentations and writing books.

Homelessness, for millions of people in the United States, consists of a plethora of challenges. To dispute the “homeless people are all mentally ill or addicts” myth, I created a chart, called “Other Stuff,” pointing to the most frequently occurring issues that cause or perpetuate homelessness for families and individuals.

My travels, including my current stint filming families doubled up in residences or living in motels in and around Madison, Wisconsin, confirm what decades of experience and research have shown, but mainstream media apparently missed. Our nation’s abysmal approach to homelessness narrowly focuses on those visibly homeless on the streets of virtually every community, tragically excluding millions of people, many of them children.

Dubbed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as “chronically homeless,” these individuals face a gauntlet of obstacles in the quest for a safe place to live. HUD’s endless “End Homelessness in 10 Years” campaigns, despite efforts by well-intentioned individuals and agencies, failed to overcome decades of budget cuts and congressional antipathy towards the broken and broke men and women wandering the streets.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Lesser known, though, is how HUD’s policies grow homelessness. Millions of people not in HUD-funded shelters (for reasons including capacity and inflexible regulations) fail to qualify as homeless by HUD, and thus are ineligible for assistance. As Jani Koester, a longtime advocate for students experiencing homelessness in Madison, told me, “If you are self-paying in a motel or doubled up, you are given a few phone numbers for other resources but not included in the system for HUD housing supports.” Koester convened a committee to address the invisible homeless family and youth population across Dane County.

Why expand services for those who lack places of their own to live? Because research confirms that family and youth homelessness becomes the unwitting “feeder system” for adults on the streets. Trauma and instability experienced by youngsters can fester into adult homelessness. As I interview parents, I ask if they were homeless as kids. Many were.

One father recently recounted how his childhood in a two-parent family crumbled with the onset of his father’s violence. His mother fled with him and his brother to a domestic violence shelter. He stumbled but recovered to become stably housed. His brother did not.

In communities across the country, efforts are underway to focus resources on doubled up and self-paying families not considered homeless by HUD. Koester and her colleagues hope that a recent resolution introduced on the county level will lead to hiring someone to focus on these invisible kids and adults. Federal efforts are also pending.)

Part of my disturbance watching the woman asking for money the other night: I wanted to ask her about her childhood. I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

Diane Nilan, the founder and president of HEAR US Inc., has spent more than three decades running homeless shelters, advocating for improved state and local policies, and filming and producing award-winning documentaries. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.