Talk to Your Children About Homelessness

by Donne Davis on October 22, 2012

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My two granddaughters, ages nine and five, are very observant girls. They’re also very empathic. On a recent visit they noticed a homeless man lying in the doorway of a shop. The five-year old asked why he was sleeping there and her older sister explained that he was homeless and didn’t have any place else to sleep. I asked them how they felt about seeing the man. They said it made them feel sad and a little scared.

Our encounter gave us an opportunity to talk about how fortunate we are to have a home, but that there are many people who are not as blessed. A few days later I read an excellent article in j. Weekly by Rachel Biale, MSW with some suggestions for how to talk to children about homelessness.

Begin by explaining the basic facts:

  • Some people don’t have enough money to buy or rent a home.
  • There are places called “homeless shelters” where such people can stay, at least for a while, but not enough for everyone who needs them. There are shelters for adults who are by themselves and also for families. Support your child if she’s outraged that there are kids who don’t have a home.
  • The people we see sleeping on the street usually have a lot of problems “with their feelings and their thinking.” This makes it hard for them to stay at those shelters or find a job and earn money for a place to live.

After you’ve shared these facts, ask your child what she thinks about homelessness. Expect and encourage expressions of empathy, concern, and anger at the way things are. Tell your child what you yourself do if you contribute to homeless shelters or food banks. And if you don’t, this may be a good reason to begin.

If your child seems troubled, which is an indication of her capacity for compassion and a sense of justice, you might consider taking further steps:

  • Volunteer at a shelter serving meals.
  • Make holiday cards for children in a shelter.
  • Collect books/toys to donate.
  • Volunteer at a food bank.

Having the opportunity to talk to your child about how lucky she is to have a home and all the things in it can help foster gratitude, which is the foundation of generosity.

I plan to have more conversations with my granddaughters about the problem of homelessness. I’d like to hear their ideas about how to solve this disturbing problem and tell them that I hope it is eradicated in their lifetime. I’m proud to say that my granddaughters have donated their extra toys to a shelter and volunteered at a shelter on Thanksgiving.

{ 4 comments }

OakTree March 9, 2013 at 11:11 am

I would replace the word “usually” with “sometimes”. Having been homeless myself, with 2 children and pets, I can tell you it was purely financial. We were abandoned, and didn’t know the mortgage was 2 months behind, or know none of the bills had been paid for 2 months. We did qualify for emergency assistance, but that does not cover 2 months of life you thought you had been paying for all along. We were placed on a “waiting list” for housing that lasted 2 years. My cats spent 2 years without us, and still act a bit strange at times. One has epilepsy, and since I only saw her long enough to feed and pet her I never saw her have a seizure until 2 years had passed. She spent all that time alone and afraid, and I feel horrible about that. Our lives were threatened one night by a friend’s son who had gone off of his medication. No one in my family, thank God, requires medication. I don’t even know how we got through those 2 years, I home school and I am a full time college student. And I had to deal with the stereo type that there must “be something wrong with” me since I was homeless and trying to hold the last bit of my family together. It isn’t “usually” drugs, it isn’t “usually” mental problems, it’s “usually” people living paycheck to paycheck, and it only takes loosing one for things to down spiral.

Donne Davis March 9, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Thank you for sharing your story and correcting my generalization. We do have a stereotype of homeless people and forget that many hardworking people, especially during the past few years, lost their homes.
I appreciate your putting a real family in place of my stereotype. I admire your courage and resilience and wish you and your family continued success. Your children are fortunate to have you as their role model.

Susan Adcox November 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm

We live in a mid-sized town where the homeless aren’t very visible, but last summer I traveled to San Francisco with my son and granddaughter. She was very upset by the people on the streets who were talking nonsense. It is difficult to explain all the issues involved in homelessness.

Vicki Valenta October 25, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Excellent article. We live in a town with a very big homeless population because our climate is warm. It’s a very difficult thing to explain to children. It’s hard for me to understand. It is also a very difficult problem to overcome. Once you are homeless. It can be almost impossible to overcome it.

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