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how to explain homelessness to children

“Mommy, why is that man with no legs asking you for money?”

My daughter asked me this when she was 3-years-old. We were downtown Chicago for the Christmas lighting ceremony one holiday season and he was the first person who was homeless that she had ever seen.

I saw the man’s sign and I explained to her that he was a veteran of the military who had lost his legs while serving our country. I explained that he had fallen on hard times and now was homeless and had no job. I explained that it is very difficult for someone to get a job when they don’t have an address to put on an application.

I could see it in her face, she wanted to know why someone who did so much to protect us wasn’t being taken care of by the collective “us.” She’s right. Why don’t we take care of our people when they are in need?

She asked us to give the man some money and, of course, we stopped and gave him some money. My husband then bought him something to eat and gave it to him. This is something the Big Guy is known to do quite frequently when he sees someone in need. It’s one of the things I love most about him.

Anyway, it all makes for a great teachable moment but I was a little taken aback by the situation because you don’t expect your preschooler to notice these things and you certainly don’t expect them to ask for an explanation. In all honesty, I think we hope that our children are so tightly encased in their protective bubble that they never have to know. Or maybe we just wish the situation didn’t exist in the first place.

We spend our parental lifetime doing our best to make sure that our children have all that they need so that they don’t have to know that want or need. But the reality is that there are some people who run into problems in life and end up homeless for a multitude of reasons.

Homelessness is an issue plaguing cities and neighborhoods across the country. At some point, most of our children will see a person who is homeless or asking for money and ask us about the situation like my daughter did, all those years ago. How you handle it will certainly shape the way your child reacts to future similar situations.

Here are some suggestions on how to answer your child’s questions and what you can do to make a positive impact not only on the life of people who are homeless but in your child’s life by teaching them compassion, empathy, kindness and love for their fellow man. After all, isn’t that what we want? To raise good human beings?


– Answer the child’s questions honestly. Show empathy and compassion for the person
who is homeless. Answers should be person-centered (the man who is homeless rather
than the homeless man). Using this type of language reinforces empathy and compassion for people.

– Answers should be short and speak to the child’s question. Don’t elaborate if not needed.

– Talk about what it means to be homeless: a person has no place to sleep, to eat, to shower and keep clean, or to keep their belongings.

– Speak about social problems that can cause homelessness.

o A person doesn’t have money to maintain a home – a home costs money.

o A person may not be connected to family/friends to help them.

o A person may have mental illness. Mental illness is when a person’s brain is not working the way it is supposed to.

– Talk about reasons why some people do not have money to maintain a home.

– Don’t attempt to use a person who is homeless as an example of what could happen if the child doesn’t stay in school, go to college, doesn’t get a good job or uses drugs.

– If the child wants to do something to improve the situation, you can:

o Talk about the many different ways to make a difference for people in need, such as making a donation to a local charity, volunteering, organizing a collection effort like a coat drive, food drive or toy drive.

o You can also include a bus pass or some small bills for transportation.

o create homeless hygiene kits to distribute to those in need. Using a large resealable plastic bag, include items and snacks such as granola bars, graham crackers, or fruit snacks; bottled water; socks; hats, scarves; deodorant; toothbrush and toothpaste; band aids; hand sanitizer; Kleenex; hand lotion; shaving cream and disposable razors; toilet paper; chap stick; hand lotion; and shampoo and conditioner.

o Include notes of encouragement or favorite bible verses, or a child’s drawing.

– You can purchase pre-made kits at www.salvationarmystore.com/comfort-pouch-kit.html.

– Or visit https://centralusa.salvationarmy.org/metro/homeless_hygiene_kits for a list of items to include and a downloadable sheet of notecards.

I love the idea of keeping pre-made kits in your car to hand out when you see a person who is homeless and in need. It’s a great way to get the children involved and be proactive. If you are like me, I seldom have cash on me but if you already have kits made with a few dollars in them for a meal, you don’t have to worry about that. Not to mention, you can make the kits a few at a time and give them out as you see the need. It’s a wonderful example to set for your child and it allows them to do something positive to change the situation, rather than just feeling helpless. We need to encourage them to be kind to those in need and give those who need it a hand up.

Last year The Salvation Army provided shelter to 628 men, women and children at the Evangeline Booth Lodge family shelter in Chicago. The Booth Lodge is one of Chicago’s only shelters that keeps families together.

The Salvation Army mobile feeding and outreach program makes 32 stops daily throughout Chicago to provide hot meals and support services to people who are homeless.

I think it’s our duty as parents to teach our children to have compassion for people in need and if they can, do something to help. We have to lead by example and be that change we want to see in the world. If we don’t, how will our children ever learn to care, to fight for what’s right, to stand up against what’s wrong and to be the change this world needs? It all begins with us showing them how to get involved and to choose to do good rather than do nothing. Homelessness is not just someone else’s problem, it is everyone’s problem.

How will you teach your child to help the homeless?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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