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Explaining Homelessness to Our Children: A Real-Life Guide

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You are driving a local street with your children in the car and the light turns red. Okay, that’s fine. You guys are used to hitting red lights. But, then, all of a sudden, the children point out a man, with dirty hair, ragged clothes and no shoes, walking towards your vehicle. What do you do? Do you immediately lock the door? Or, do you roll down your window to hand him some change or even a snack from your purse?

You’ve made it to your destination — a local store. Standing outside of the store is a woman and her elementary-aged child. Their hair is dirty, their clothes are ragged and their shoes are missing laces. They are selling water for $1.00. What do you do? Do you buy a bottle when the meek and sad-looking eight-year-old asks if you want one or do you ignore her? Do you politely decline even though your child is yelling about how thirsty they are or do you accept the water and hand the child a $5 dollar bill instead and instruct her to keep it?

You’re driving back home and what looks to be a disoriented man runs across the street right in front of your car. What do you do? Do you curse the man as you drive away or do you begin to say a prayer for him?

You are almost back home when the children spot a man with a sign. The man looks tired and embarrassed. He does not look clean. His sign states that he is a war veteran and needs help getting back on his feet. The children ask questions about this man. What do you do? Do you dodge the questions and distract them with a new topic or do you answer them honestly and to the best of your ability?

THESE ARE ALL HARD QUESTIONS. And, if you are expecting me to have the right answers for you, I don’t. But, I do have suggestions on how to deal with/answer them and that we will get to soon.

Homelessness is defined by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, as a condition that “occurs when people or households are unable to acquire and/or maintain housing they can afford”. According to the National Alliance to End Homeless, the statistics as of January of 2016 were as follows:

  • In January 2016, 549,928 people were homeless on a given night in the United States.
  • Of that number, 194,716 were people in families.
  • 355,212 were individuals.
  • On that same night, there were 35,686 unaccompanied homeless youth, roughly seven percent of the total homeless population.
  • 77,486 (or one in five) were considered chronically homeless individuals.
  • On that same night, 39,471 Veterans were homeless.

Homelessness is sad. No matter how you look it and no matter the reason for it — nobody wants to see it or hear about it — and nobody wants to live it or see another human being living it. But how do we talk to our children about it? I struggle with this. I struggle hard with this.

Of course, there is a huge part of me that wants to protect my children from any thoughts of there being negative parts of our world. As parents, there is this paternal and maternal instinct to protect our children from anything adverse entering into their minds and lives. But, is this a mistake? I think it is, to a degree.

According to Wellspring Family Services, I am not alone in struggling to explain homelessness to my children, as they state that “many parents struggle with how to respond to these common questions without an easy answer”. But, we have to answer our children — they are rightfully curious and we cannot just ignore that — they will not let us and we should not want to.

So, here are my suggestions for explaining homelessness to your children:

  • When they ask about the homeless people, as in the examples provided above, define what “homeless” is for them — straight from the dictionary — “a person without a home, and therefore typically living on the streets”. This is super straightforward. They will of course have follow-up questions for you, but this starts the conversation.
  • When they ask why the person does not have a home, explain that there are a variety of reasons for why this could be the case for someone.
  • When they ask how someone actually “lives on the streets” explain what that means. Don’t sugarcoat it.
  • During your discussion of homelessness and homeless people, be sure to express compassion and empathy for the people you are discussing.
  • Don’t get too specific. Specifics regarding such a serious topic could overwhelm a child. Wait till they are a teenager before you approach the topics of alcoholism, mental instability, etc.
  • When they are of the appropriate age, ensure that your children understand that not all homeless people are alcoholics or mentally unstable — some are just like you and me.
  • Talk about ways to be a difference-maker. Maybe you are not comfortable directly interacting with a person that is homeless and that is alright. But, you should still find a way to help — be it via donating to a local food bank, writing inspirational letters to be delivered around at a shelter, donating your coat at a neighborhood coat drive, etc.
  • Approach the overall conversation with a sense of hope and optimism. This topic may be one that saddens your child and it is your job to reassure them there are ways for individuals, like them, to help, but also that there are organizations specifically designed to look out for those that need looking out for.
  • I would conclude any conversation that you have with your child regarding homelessness, by reiterating to them that they, themselves, are safe and secure. I would remind them that there is so much good in this world, but that there is some bad too. But, that through our optimism and strength we can each make a difference, even if it is a small one and even if it only benefits one person.

Please hear me that I wholeheartedly understand that homelessness comes in many forms, happens for many different reasons and looks different, depending upon where you live. I know that I have only scratched the surface on the topic of homelessness, but I do believe this is a good place to start for conversations with our young children.

“Hungry not only for bread — but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing — but naked for human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of room and bricks — but homeless because of rejection”. — Mother Theresa

I completely understand being hesitant to give money to a stranger, but then give something else— some food, some clothes or, at minimum, give them respect in how you talk about them when your child asks about their situation.

Do not judge and do not reject.

It’s your turn to change the world. And, yours. And, yours.

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