I was raised in a medium sized town, and my mom taught me that if someone is panhandling, you give them money. But in San Francisco the cash system doesn’t scale, we meet dozens of homeless people every day.
So the new family rule is that if someone asks for food or says they’re hungry, we get them something to eat. Hank has been in line with me at corner bodegas grabbing peanut butter and bread, or at a food counter ordering lunch with a stranger.
Since Hank was tiny, I’ve given him simple explanations about what’s going on around him. But in terms of brain development, empathy really starts kicking in between ages five and eight — so lately he’s been asking more questions about homelessness, usually when we’re in the presence of someone suffering through it.
I’ve been unsure of how to answer, and I’ve been fighting my tendency to overexplain. I know the idea of people not having enough food upsets him, and I faced the typical parenting dilemma — wanting to give him just enough information to clear up confusion, but not so much that he’s lying awake at night worried about us losing our apartment.
This year, we put together survival kits to keep with us, so we have a quick way to offer help. To my surprise, it was an awesome, non-preachy way to start a hard conversation.
As we put the bags together, we used the things in the kits to to talk about objects that are hard to come by when you don’t have a house or money. Deodorant can help you when you can’t shower enough, bandaids are good for blisters when you’re walking all day because there’s nowhere to sit down. Why can’t homeless people sit down enough? Oof. Good question, kid.
It was rough, discussing the concept of “loitering” for example, but good to show him that there are things he can do even as a little guy. Now he knows what the word homeless means for the people who are living with it, and knows there are lots of ways to help.
If you have a kid in your life and live in a big city, consider doing this as part of the inevitable and necessary conversation about homelessness. It was super helpful for us.
This post is part of the Too Small to Fail campaign sponsored by Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation. The campaign is about teaching kids by talking to them — from the time they’re babies on up — and the simple ways grownups can help combat childhood stress.