“Mommy, is that a poor man? Why is he poor? Why is he sleeping on the street?” Have you ever noticed that your child asks exactly the same questions you, and all of society, ask? But they ask it in a really loud voice right next to the person who sparked the questions?
I came across this article the other day, and it reminded me how important it is to know what, how and why we (the parents) feel about the homeless and poverty. That we need to be explicit with our children when it comes to how we interact with those uncomfortable problems our society has. Especially here in Silicon Valley, where homelessness has exploded right behind housing prices. Where walking through the local park takes you past RV after RV. Where even people with jobs and families still cannot find a permanent structure in which to live.
Faced with this on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to simply ignore the problem, turn away, pretend we don’t hear. But as parents we are always called (I believe) to be our highest selves, to model that which we want our children to become. (Never let me tell you parenting is easy!)
So. If I am constantly striving (and often failing) to be the parent I want to be, to embody the virtues and values I want to instill in my children—what should I do when I’m confronted with the homeless problem we have in such abundance? What’s the “right” thing to do? To say? It’s not an easy question, and there are certainly many ways to deal with it. I’d say so long as you are acting within your conscience, and following through on your beliefs, it is most likely the right thing for you to do. But first you have to know what those beliefs are, and that can be tricky.
This article is not to tell you what is right or wrong. I’ve spoken before about perfection in parenting—not a goal! As with all things, there are several roads to travel upon. If you have different choices I encourage you to leave comments here—it can be incredibly helpful to see other ways in which families deal with these real world issues. To that end, I’ve decided to share our process.
For me and my family, I hold compassion as an extremely high value. In fact, it's my mission statement: “… to make the next generation more compassionate and connected than the last.” As a core value, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to model this to my children. This is my message to my kids: always—ALWAYS—choose kindness.
How do I do that? One step is that we have “blessing bags” in the trunk to give out to people. In fact, I’ve dragged the kids out of the car and into the rain to deliver those bags to people who were huddled on the sidewalk. You can find out more about blessing bags here (they have lots of names). My formula is 1 pair of socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, an energy bar, cleansing wipes, and some ibuprofen into each one. I also have feminine hygiene products in several of the bags for when we encounter women who are homeless. Once you have your supplies, though, what do you do with them?
The rules: Always make sure you’re safe, first of all. If someone is acting unpredictably or in a way that just makes you feel unsafe, trust your instincts and walk away. You’re never under an obligation to put yourself at harm. If the person is simply asking for food or money, however, stop. Interact. Say hello. Ask their name. (I once made it a practice to take everyone who asked me for money to the McDonalds by my apartment in downtown Seattle. I asked what the worst part of being homeless was, and by far it was the feeling of being invisible, of having their identity stripped from them. The simple act of asking their name, and then using it, is one of the most significant things you can do.) Ask how they’re doing. If they ask for something in particular and if we can give it, we give it. If we have one of our bags, we give that. If we don’t have anything to physically give them, we give them well wishes. We often ask if they are connected to the local agencies (food banks, shelters, etc.). Then we wish them well and go about our day.
I’ve been given the opportunity to model this on many occasions. Just last week a young man outside of a store asked us for money. I didn’t have any cash, and told him so. He then asked if we could buy him a sandwich. I said, Yes, we can do that. We walked back into the store with him, found out his name was Chris, and bought him a sandwich and a drink. We chatted a short while (he knew about the CSA here), and then wished him well and went about our day.
It was a very short, simple and easy interaction. And it was yet another chance to be explicit about my beliefs with my children. “Always choose to be kind.” We talked about what kindness might look like, why we bought him a sandwich (because we could), discussed some of the reasons why he might not have money to eat...and why that sandwich might be more important to him than any meal we’ve ever had. It opened up a conversation about more things than I can cover in one blog post, but most of all—above everything else—it gave us one more opportunity to talk about how to choose kindness.
On another occasion, I was deeply moved when my husband returned from the grocery store with the kids, and told me how our daughter had interacted with a homeless man we often see there. He said she’d called him by his name, walked up to him, chatted for a few moments, and then went into the store. My husband and I shared his pride at seeing her embody kindness with confidence. We felt we were doing something right, after all.
So that is how our family faces the homeless crisis we see on a daily basis. It’s not the “right” way to do it, but it is what feels right to us. Do please comment below, and share your choices and the reasons behind them. You never know how your story could inspire others! But no matter your choices, please doalways choose to be kind.
Telling Your Brain the Truth (or, I Guess They DO Listen!)