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Do more than reflect

| Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Thanks to my friend, Michelle Krupa (UND ‘00), I ended up on a University of Notre Dame mailing list. That explains the “divine intervention” of receiving the recent “Observer” containing the Letter to the Editor, “A moment to see the poor at Notre Dame.” I can’t help but weigh in on this letter, and more. 

For many years, I was responsible for the University of Notre Dame’s Summer Service Project students who ventured into our center for ministry at Hesed House in Aurora, IL, where I ran the emergency shelter. Notre Dame grad, and my optometrist, Dr. Kevin King, had approached me about this arrangement on behalf of the Fox Valley, IL Notre Dame club. 

The typical reactions of these wonderful student-volunteers was at first hesitation (based on fear since they were staying in the same dorm as our homeless guests), then energetic purposefulness, then pure joy, then mutual heartbreaking sadness as their summer experience came to an end.

Michelle, in her role as a reporter for the Aurora Beacon News, spent much time on the issue of homelessness at Hesed House. Then a young ‘un, she was a quick learner, and she picked up on the underlying issues of poverty and homelessness. Now, in her position at CNN, I know she’s a vigilant watchdog for these issues, and we connect when something worthy of coverage arises. I can also park my van/home/office in front of her family home when I’m rolling through Atlanta on my quest for stories of family and youth homelessness. 

Thus my interest, and unease, with the Letter to the Editor submitted by Professors Stephen Fallon, Clark Power and John Duffy. Is the University doing all it can to address poverty, homelessness, racism and other searing issues of today? By their reckoning, no. I’d agree. I’m curious as to the extent of the “Moment to See, Courage to Act” initiative. 

I can speak with 30 plus years of experience in the homelessness-poverty arena. My past 15 years living in my van, traveling cross country to chronicle family/youth homelessness has opened my eyes, mind and heart even wider about the plight and promise of our homeless families, youth and adults. We are not doing near enough to alleviate these dire conditions. 

I’m not known for soft-speak. I’d challenge the University — the institution, alum and students — that much more can be done to address the ever-growing poverty, homelessness and racism in our country. It’s not enough to take a moment to see. You have to walk in the shoes of those without homes and resources like the Summer Service Project interns did. 

Lacking that as a logistical possibility, look deeper, and closer.

What is happening in the South Bend area as far as homelessness? Are you good with it? Would you be good with it if your family was searching for emergency assistance and shelter there? If your son, daughter, or close relative was needing long-term support? I can say that the efforts in South Bend are lacking to the point of horribly inadequate, despite the best efforts of some dedicated groups and individuals. 

The admission that Notre Dame is flagging as a leader in addressing educational and economic injustices is a good starting point. It’s not enough just to welcome a sprinkling of poor students. If those students could speak freely, they’d likely say that getting in the door of your esteemed institution sounded like a great opportunity, but grueling challenges, the offshoots of poverty, leave them disheartened and ready to quit. 

Education is not meant to be the gift of the benevolent to the needy. Housing, food, medical care, child care and other essentials are not to be dispersed by the elite to those determined to be deserving. 

“Solidarity with the poor” requires leaving our comfort zones and getting involved, to the point of discomfort, challenging the vast injustices running amok in our country today. 

The Summer Service volunteers I got to know and love would tell you of their learning curve. And they certainly would guide the “do-gooders” in the true process of really being with those who have nothing, yet have so much. 

Pope Francis has done more for people living in poverty than any pope I can remember. I’d add that those who proclaim the need for solidarity with the poor best be ready to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” themselves included.

It’s not a matter of comfortable benevolence. Don’t just ask your student body to “reflect much more closely the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the country.” Go beyond that and challenge the systems that create the rampant injustices of racism, poverty and division — in South Bend, Indianapolis and Washington, DC.

I’ll leave you with my offer of abundant info — videos, books, presentations — on family and youth homelessness through my nonprofit, HEAR US Inc. I drive through the South Bend area often and I’m more than willing to walk with you on this vital journey. It’s not us and them. We’re in this together. 

Diane Nilan

president, HEAR US Inc.

April 24

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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