How do we talk to our kids about homelessness? I’m not a parent yet, but let me just say… this question scares me.

Recently, my mom and my 5-year-old nephew came to visit me at work in downtown Grand Rapids. On their way to visit, they saw a panhandler. My nephew asked my mom, “Are we going to that place”? He thought the panhandler was promoting a special event with his sharpie scribbled cardboard sign. Kids say the darndest things don’t they? God bless mom. She had to think on her feet and explain that the panhandler was out there – not to promote an event – but to ask for money. My nephew’s innocent curiosity led to an in-depth discussion about jobs and homelessness. I’m sure mom was relieved when that car ride was over.

Kids aren’t always articulate, but they are certainly intuitive. When they see someone on the street, they know it’s not right, but of course they can’t understand the complexities of affordable housing, addiction and mental illness. While mom did her best to lovingly educate my nephew about the man with the cardboard sign, she admitted that she could have used some tips. Me too, mom… me too!

panhandling picture-2Speak to their level of experience

Homelessness and poverty is too complicated for most adults to understand. Kids don’t need all the details, but help them understand that there are many reasons why someone is without a home. A conversation might go something like this:

Kid: What is that person doing with a sign?
You: It looks like he’s asking for people to give him money.

Kid: Why is he asking for money?
You: I’m not sure. He may need money for food or groceries or to help pay for his house.

Kid: Why doesn’t he go to work like mommy and daddy?
You: I don’t know. He may be sick or maybe doesn’t know how to work, or lost his family and he is sad. There are many reasons why someone needs money.

Kid: Can we help him?
You: Giving someone money doesn’t always help them in the way that they need. There are organizations that people can go to get help if they need a home. Let’s plan to volunteer at a place that helps people who are homeless. We can also collect clothing and money and donate it. Maybe you want to share some of your allowance for people who don’t have as much as you do?

Don’t pass down stereotypes

There are many reasons why people are homeless or choose to panhandle. Each story is different. We have the choice to perpetuate stereotypes with our kids, or show empathy. By assuming that someone who is homeless is addicted, lazy or crazy, we are passing the stigma to the next generation.

We don’t have to know all the answers. Kids respect our honesty. Use this opportunity to ask them what they are feeling about what they are seeing.

Be empathetic

Sympathy and empathy are different. We should encourage dialogue and ask our kids what they think the homeless person is thinking or feeling when they don’t have a home. Ask: “what do you feel when you see that person sleeping on the street”?

Be an example, take action and follow through

Empathy usually leads to a gut feeling that tells us “we have to do something.” Around the age of 5, kids are starting to think about others and how to help solve problems. It’s not just our words that demonstrate our faith and our values; it’s our tone, body language and actions. Our children will notice if we ignore those who are suffering. They take cues from something as simple as eye contact. Maybe stopping to help someone on the street isn’t the right time to address the issue, but let’s talk to our kids about meaningful ways to help in a safe and welcoming environment.

Here are just a few ways kids in West Michigan have helped:

Turkey Drop
turkey drop
Several kids dropped off frozen turkeys at this MTM event around Thanksgiving. The turkeys were given out to families in need of a meal during the holiday season.
Fundraising
Hannah raised money
Hannah collected money from her classmates and family members to give to Mel Trotter Ministries to help men, women and children who have less than she does.
Write an encouraging card
family donating money
Anna and her family met a homeless man at Family Dollar. They bought bus passes for him so he could get to work and delivered a letter with the bus passes to MTM where he was living.
In-Kind Donations
addy donations3
Addy partnered with a local business during the Christmas season to collect blankets for the individuals and families living at MTM.
Volunteer
zac thanksgiving meal
Many families serve meals at the Mission or they volunteer together at the Thanksgiving Community Meal at DeVos Place.

family thanksgiving meal

Embrace the awkwardness

This topic is likely to come up at some point and as my mom knows full-well, it can’t be scripted. The best thing we can do is keep an open mind and a non-judgmental spirit. Let kids know how blessed they are to have a home and a family that loves them. Most importantly, show them that no matter how old they are, they can make a difference!

Get more information about how to get your family involved at www.meltrotter.org

Abbey with her nephew RJ. (taken 5 years ago)

Written by Abbey Sladick
Abbey has worked at Mel Trotter Ministries since 2015 and is the Community Outreach Ambassador for WOTV 4 Women.

Posted by:meltrotterministries

The vision of Mel Trotter Ministries is to end homelessness in West Michigan, one life at a time, through the power of Christ.

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