People, not Problems: Talking to Your Kids about Homelessness
Charlotte, with her mother Claire Brannan, saved up her treat bags from basketball games to hand out to homeless people.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Whether you’re walking through downtown or listening to the news, homelessness is a central — and highly visible — concern in Seattle. Inevitably, parents end up fielding difficult questions from their children, ranging from why people are homeless to how to act around those behaving erratically to how to help.
Paul LaRose has been there. As the Director of Emergency Shelters for Union Gospel Mission, LaRose has come to know many of Seattle’s homeless people. And he’s heard every question from his kids, from “Why don’t we give them money?” to “Why can’t they come live with us?”
“I realized they were forming thoughts about it before they were even asking the questions,” he says of his sons, who were then 2 and 4 years old. So he and his wife decided to speak with their sons openly and consistently about it. That was six years ago, and the conversations have built over time.
Why are people homeless?
One of the toughest questions kids can ask — and one they often ask over and over — is why people are homeless.
LaRose has a straightforward answer: “Homelessness is caused by poverty. Poverty is lack of resources. Sometimes it’s a lack of money and the person can’t pay for a place to live, but most of the time it’s a lack of friends and family that are able to help them when they need it most,” he says. He tells his kids that sometimes people can’t work. “The thing to remember is that anyone can be homeless, so we shouldn’t try to guess why they are homeless. Sometimes all they need is help to find their way.”
Claire Brannan has taken a similar approach with her daughter, Charlotte, who is 5. Brannan volunteered regularly in homeless shelters before having kids, so when her daughter started noticing people “camping” alongside the road at age 3, Brannan wanted to help her understand the issue in an age-appropriate way. “We have talked about why, usually almost every time we discuss homelessness. I’m pretty blunt,” she says. As Charlotte is able to understand more, Brannan has begun explaining mental illness. She has told her daughter that some people’s brains work differently, making it difficult for them to have a job.
Teaching compassion and caution
One of the first things LaRose and his wife taught their sons was to have empathy and compassion, while also exhibiting the same caution they do with other adults. Early on, “We started teaching them the difference between someone who is safe and someone who may not be safe,” he says, and they made sure the lesson was about all adults, both to avoid stereotyping homeless people as dangerous and to avoid creating a false sense of security around non-homeless adults.
“Often we think there’s something to fear, and there’s simply not,” LaRose says.
Of course, sometimes a homeless person’s behavior, such as when they’re intoxicated or experiencing a hallucination, for example, can be confusing or scary.
“The way that you react is really important role modeling,” says Randi Eseltine, who does community outreach for YouthCare, an organization that helps homeless youth. “I might just say, ‘I’m thinking this person may need a doctor and there are places nearby where they can get help,’” she says.
LaRose has a similar approach. “We may say, ‘That person doesn’t seem safe right now.’ It’s about the person in the moment, rather than homeless people as a class,” he says.
He says the homeless often feel like people fear them, or don’t see them as human at all. One of the most important lessons he and his wife teach their children is that people without homes are people — not problems.
While some people give money or supplies to homeless people, others may opt to donate to service providers. What you choose, LaRose says, is a personal decision — and one that his family debates regularly.
“If we don’t know the person, we typically give them food or supplies,” LaRose says, but not money. On the other hand, they’re more likely to give money to homeless people they know. His sons disagree over which approach is right, and he encourages the discussion.
Brannan says she prefers to donate to service providers, but she doesn’t discourage her daughter’s desire to help more directly. Recently, Charlotte saved up her treat bags during basketball season and when she and her mother head downtown, they distribute the bags, along with granola bars, to homeless people. “Her whole body and demeanor change, she’s got her shoulders back. It just warms my heart,” she said.
While shelters often have age restrictions for volunteers, LaRose says that community groups, religious organizations and food pantries often allow young kids to help sort donations or stuff care packages. Kids can also help with clothing or sock drives.
With a complex and overwhelming problem like homelessness, parents and children can feel that anything they do is a mere drop in the bucket. But the role-modeling parents do now could impact how their children treat less fortunate people, homeless or not, for the rest of their lives.
Looking for ideas on how you and your kids can help out homeless families in our community? Check out: