Explaining Homelessness To Our Children: A Real-Life Guide

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.


Categories: Parenting

14 replies »

  1. Anyone is one serious illness away from this. I usually give gift cards to the grocery store they are nearest too. They can still buy booze if they so choose, but they have a rough go and I sometimes like a drink myself and my only complaint is my toddler is whiney.
    I also try to contribute to the local food bank and I am planning to take my little there to learn more. You are right, it may make us uncomfortable, but it is important.

    • Thanks for commenting, Addison. You are right, no one is immune and showing our littles how to contribute and watching them experience compassion and the inner joy that comes from compassion is beyond comparison. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. This is a good topic and I probably do not understand the homeless issue, having been fortunate enough to never be in their shoes. And yes, my children do ask questions about the people they see. Do you ever wonder if some of them are simply trying to take advantage of people’s empathy and not really in need? Or do you just try to meet a need and not worry about that?

    • Hi Char! Thanks for commenting. I, too, wonder if some are simply trying to take advantage of my empathy, just like you stated…and that’s one reason I mentioned in the post that I do not have the “right” answer for this, just my suggestions. I usually go with my gut feeling in the moment. I try to trust it, but I also try to remember that we are all humans and we all deserve to be respected..in some form. That is why I think that if you are questioning whether someone me simply be taking advantage of you the least you can do is to show respect and how you talk about them…I hope I am making sense to you…it is a hard topic!! Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. I like your post and it is something that children need to learn. My children are young and they ask questions and I have answered them and I give money to panhandlers. Truthfully, I have been on the other end of the specttrum. I was a panhandler, I lived under a bridge. Yes, I am a recovering addict and I will tell you that In the years I was homeless and panhandling, I have NEVER met a homeless person that was not an addict. That includes alcohol, it is a drug. Does that mean you shouldn’t give panhandlers money, not at all. Will they buy drugs? Yes, but if they make enough they will also get something to eat, on good days be able to pay their way to get a shower somewhere. Are you contributing to their death? Truthfully, if you do not give them money even change or a dollarr helps. They will simply go about it another way. I chose to panhandle rather than sell my body or rob houses as other addicts. Not saying I never did those things. And I also have been put in jail over a dozen times for pandhandling. If you still dont want to give money. Give food, clothing, it all helps and these people truly do need it! (sorry about the sp errors, I am multitasking with my kid and having issues.lol)

    • Thank you very much for the comment. I am glad that you liked the post and I do appreciate you sharing your story. And I am also very glad for you that you are no longer in that situation. It’s brave to talk about your journey and your comments are appreciated. Thank you.

  4. This is an extremely hard topic to discuss with children for sure. I remember growing up and my mom trying to explain it to me. You never know why these people are homeless. I choose to give them food or something like that instead of money. I don’t know what they’ll be using that money for. I will hand out water bottles on hot days. Some homeless people look surprised and almost offended while others are extremely thankful. You never know the persons story. So, it’s important not to judge.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comments and thanks for sharing how you typically approach these situations. I like how you put it, that everyone has their story. So well said. Thank you for commenting.

  5. So many hard things to discuss with the kiddos. This is a topic we’ve touched lightly on, because we don’t come across many homeless where we live. But we try to answer as truthfully (and age appropriately) as we can. I feel kids need to know, there is bad in the world. It sucks. But it’s there. And we tried to explain that you just never know the reason for why they’re homeless. Could be many different things. But still, show kindness. It’s ok to be cautious, but still try to be kind.

    • Hey Amanda! Thanks so much for commenting. Yes, this is only one of the many hard topics I can imagine I am going to have to tackle with the kiddies as they keep growing up. I totally am in agreement with you to be age-appropriately truthful with them, but encourage them to always lead with kindness…and we do that by example…when we lead with kindness in our judgments and words. Thanks Amanda for contributing to the conversation!

    • I very much appreciate the comment and your kind words. Sometimes my first instinct is to ignore it to, but I know I have to push through and address the tough issues. Thank you again for reading and commenting. 🙂

  6. Great topic! We have a big homeless population in my town. From working at our local hospital I learned the majority of our homeless were addicts, whether drugs or alcohol. No matter, they are still people who need someone to show them love. There are some I can easily pass by and some I feel God lay it on my heart to pray for, and at times even buy them a meal. Thank you for sharing!

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