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NIU documentary maker Laura Vazquez shines light on the faces of homelessness in America

October 14, 2010

Far from the stereotypes many people envision, the most common faces of homelessness in the United States belong to women and children.

And NIU communication professor Laura Vazquez, partnering with nationally known homeless advocate Diane Nilan, has spent the last four years working to tell their stories.

Laura Vazquez

Laura Vazquez

The result is “on the edge,” a powerful new one-hour documentary. It takes viewers deep into the nomadic lives of seven women who reveal the complex and often poignant stories of their fall from housing and independence, the traumatic effects on their children and their struggles to escape homelessness.

A premiere screening of the documentary will be held during a tribute this month to the late Mary Lou Cowlishaw, a longtime state representative who championed the rights of homeless students. Cowlishaw died this past June at the age of 78.

The tribute reception, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, in the lobby of Madden Theatre at the Fine Arts Center of North Central College in Naperville, where Cowlishaw served as an adjunct professor.

The screening of “on the edge” will begin at 7:15 p.m.

Making the film was an eye-opening experience for Vazquez, a veteran documentary maker and professor who teaches courses at NIU in media production. She traveled the country with Nilan while filming interviews, spent hundreds of hours editing videotape and even lived for a week in an Opelousas, La., shelter.

“The people there were so sweet and welcoming, but a shelter is what it is. I found it very depressing,” Vazquez says.

Her spirits were buoyed, however, working with Nilan.

“It’s not just respect that I have for Diane, it’s awe,” Vazquez says. “She has an incredible passion and energy for this — nothing stands in her way.

“This whole experience made me realize how lucky I am to have a home,” Vazquez adds. “We often take our comfortable lives for granted, but for many single mothers and their children, life is extremely difficult and the security of a home is very tenuous. They live day-to-day, not knowing how they’ll pay the rent or what will happen if the car breaks down or the kids get sick.”

Diane Nilan

Diane Nilan

Nilan is all too familiar with the complexities surrounding the issue of homelessness. A former Aurora shelter director, she has spent 25 years advocating for the homeless.

In 2005, Nilan founded the non-profit Hear Us, a Naperville-based organization that aims to raise awareness about homelessness.

That same year, she sold her home, took out a mortgage on an RV and embarked on an eight-month, cross-country odyssey, logging more than 20,000 miles in eight months. Along the way, she videotaped interviews with homeless children, teens and their parents in places not typically associated with homelessness — small towns, rural areas, resort communities and affluent mid-sized cities.

Upon her return, Nilan first met Vazquez, and the pair partnered to produce a series of short documentaries on the rights of homeless children in public schools. They knew a larger story was in the making.

“We both realized the incredible potential these stories had to enlighten, inspire and reshape the way Americans viewed families and youth without homes,” Nilan says.

The work of the filmmakers was endorsed and encouraged by each of the women portrayed in the documentary. All seven are expected to be present for a second screening of “on the edge” in November during the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Houston.

“Their spirited contribution to a greater understanding of homelessness is and will continue to be significant,” Nilan says. “With their unwavering faith in this four-year process bolstering us, Laura and I can only hope that our determined effort to get this film seen by as many people as possible will be realized.”

A DeKalb screening of “on the edge” is in the works as well. Ultimately, the documentary will likely be used in university-level social work and education programs. DVDs will be available for purchase, probably in early 2011, through HEAR US and other outlets.

“My hope is that ‘on the edge’ brings about positive change in current policies on homelessness, which typically target men on the street even though the most typical homeless person in our country today is a child,” Vazquez says.

More information on the new documentary, including trailers and short biographies of the women featured in the film, is available online.

by Tom Parisi