It is hard to go anywhere in San Francisco these days and not see someone who is homeless. This is no longer a problem that only exists downtown or in “other” neighborhoods. Most mornings on Chestnut Street you can find someone sleeping in a doorway or taking shelter in the evening at Moscone Park.
As our children become older and are more aware of their surroundings, they start to notice and ask questions. As a parent, I try to answer these questions honestly, concisely, and age appropriately. If your children are starting to ask questions or you are looking for ways to help them understand the issue, here are some tips you may find helpful.
EXPLAIN THE ISSUE
There are two ways to approach the subject. The first is wait until your child brings it up, and the second is to bring it up in the moment, maybe after you after just walked by someone asking for money or pushing a shopping cart with all of his or her belongings. Either way, think about what you are going to say and keep it simple. When my oldest child recently asked why someone was sleeping on the sidewalk, I explained that the person has no place to sleep, to shower, or to keep his belongings. As a follow up, I explained that he is someone’s son, and maybe even someone’s brother or father who hit a hard time and that homelessness is something that affects all ages and types of people; it does not discriminate.
AVOID FEAR TACTICS
One of the common misperceptions of children and even some adults is that all homeless people are scary or crazy. Mental illness and addiction are huge issues among the homeless population, but depending on the age of your child, you may want to avoid diving too deeply here.
When talking about homelessness, use it as an opportunity to talk also about service and compassion. Encourage your children to be empathetic and try to instill in them a desire to help others to do something about the problem. Remember that they are watching and learning from your example, so be mindful about how you talk about the homeless and how you treat them, because sometimes our actions speak louder than words.
Last, avoid scaring your children by telling them that this is something that could happen to them if they don’t stay in school, get good grades, or if they use drugs.
The two key components to action are to be safe and be consistent. Depending on your comfort level and your child’s, develop a plan to help or get involved. This can be donating toys, books, or clothes to an organization that serves the homeless. It helps to get involved around a birthday or special event and not just during the holidays.
As a family, you can tour a homeless shelter — there are many here in our city doing amazing work. Talking to someone in a shelter who is on the “front lines” of the issue can also be a good resource to help answer your child’s questions. As a follow up, find out what the organization needs most (books, socks, warm jackets) and host a drive to collect those items at your child’s school or in your neighborhood.
Finally, one of our family favorites is putting together large zipper bags filled with toiletries — soaps and shampoos we have collected from hotels, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, and warm socks. I keep these in my car, and when we come across someone asking for money, we hand them these bags instead.
Homelessness is a very difficult problem with no clear or easy solutions. As parents, we can start to educate our children from an early age about this issue and then hope they can become part of a solution, which we would all like to see sooner rather than later.