Home Sweet Home. Home is Where the Heart Is. For most people, these phrases connote a safe place with four walls and a roof. But 600,000 to 2.5 million people in the United States are homeless, according to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. At some point in your child’s life, it’s likely you’ll run into someone without a place to live.
So what do you say when your child asks you why the woman on the corner is pushing a grocery cart or why that man along the median is holding up a sign? First of all, don’t dismiss her question. View it as an opportunity to have a candid, intelligent conversation about a very difficult topic.
Like anything, it’s a lot easier if you’re prepared. According to Gerre Brenneman, director of Evangel Home, a shelter for homeless women and children in Fresno, CA, there are some definite Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to broaching the topic of homelessness with your child. Here are a few tips.
- Never put down or look down on a person for being homeless. Every parent wants their child to become compassionate and children learn by example. Resist saying something negative. Instead, focus on the facts. You can tell your child that some people have problems, but that there are places they can get help.
- One mistake Brenneman says many middle to upper class families make is to show their children how ‘the other half lives’. Exposing your child to someone less fortunate simply to get them to see ‘how good he has it’ is a bad idea.
- Don’t encourage your child to give money to street panhandlers. If your child wants to get involved in helping the less fortunate, there are organizations already doing this, with which you can work.
- Wait for your child to bring it up. Homelessness is a big, abstract concept and it will mean more to your child if she is the one initiating interest and requesting explanations. Don’t open the floodgates. Give her the information in small chunks, so she can understand.
- Have your child go through his clothing and toys and donate to the needy. Encourage him to give away a toy with which he still loves to play, not just those in which he has no interest.
- When your child is ready, find a safe way to help these people. Many non-profits work with the homeless. But, Brenneman says, “The key is to do it more than once and be consistent. Tie it in with birthdays, holidays or other special occasions.” Have your child physically bring gifts to a shelter on his birthday. She can be proud that she helped lend a hand, and will learn about compassion. She’ll see she can make a difference.
- If you are religious, it’s always okay to pray for others.
- If your child is a bit older, encourage him to save some money for the homeless, and then personally deliver a check with a card to the shelter. He’ll likely get a thank you note in return.
There are many reasons why people are homeless. Whatever the reason, it’s important that your child understands that homelessness affects all ages and types of people. Keep in mind the purpose of explaining homelessness to your child should be to enable him to care for others, build compassion and strengthen his character. Teach him that homelessness is not a crime, but a problem, and show him how to be part of the solution.