Talking with Kids About Homelessness

Our family took a Memorial Weekend getaway to San Francisco. Though we intended our mini-vacation to be pure fun, it also ended up being a learning experience -- mostly for me. As we made our way around the city, we encountered the homeless on nearly every block, which left my ten-year-old daughter Didi frightened, my nine-year-old son Gobez speechless, and my youngest girl, Lemlem, age eight, full of questions that I didn't quite know how to answer.

It's not that my children have been sheltered. On the contrary, they probably know more about the issue of homelessness than many suburban kids. The Episcopal church we attend runs a Tuesday soup kitchen and provides ongoing support for the homeless in our community of 30,000. The kids have helped me make apple pies, brownies, banana bread and more for the clients. We know most of the folks in the program, and when I spot a new homeless person around town, I don't hesitate to approach and invite him or her to come by for Tuesday lunch.

Though I consider myself to be a caring person, our San Francisco weekend pointed out my limitations and contradictions. As soon as we stepped into Union Square, I automatically shifted into "city mode," focusing only on keeping the kids close and avoiding potential risks. I didn't even realize that I'd ceased to be present to the dignity and suffering of the human beings around me until Lemlem started shooting out questions:

Mom, what happened to her legs?

Mom, is that guy okay?

Mom, why didn't you give him any money?

In every case, I realized with shock that I'd failed to even see the person she was talking about.

Then, after just 20 minutes in the city, Lemlem asked the most painful question of all:

Mom, how come almost all the homeless people here are black?

I gasped, because, you see, Lemlem, my beautiful Ethiopian-born daughter, is black herself. The subtext was clear: Why do all the people in pain look like me? It's a question that I, as her adoptive white mother, can't shy away from if I want to help her grow into a strong, confident and caring black woman. Unfortunately, it's also a question that can't be appropriately addressed during a mad dash to the subway.

"That's something we'll spend some time talking about later," I promised.

Lemlem accepted my stall. She kept herself busy by keeping a running tally of the number of homeless we encountered, broken down by race and gender. She even made up a code, so that she could discreetly point out every person in need. "Mom, there's another BHM," she'd say, referring to a Black Homeless Male. "Look, there's a WHW."

She found my reluctance to give anything to the street people harder to accept. We were preparing to leave the hotel at one point when Lemlem proudly pulled open her coat pocket to reveal a half-eaten bag of Trader Joe's Kettle Corn. "I didn't eat all of this," she said, "so that I could share some with the homeless people we meet."

Stunned, I struggled to explain the need to balance compassion with caution in terms an eight-year-old could understand. For her own safety, I couldn't allow Lemlem to inadvertently approach a mentally ill person with a sweet offering that might be violently refused, and yet I felt uncomfortable squashing her impulse to freely give of the "bounty" she possessed. Isn't that spirit of giving the essence of compassion?

"We'll find an organization that helps the homeless in San Francisco and make a donation," I promised again.

Thankfully, finding the right organization turned out to be easy. Our weekend itinerary included attending Sunday morning services at Glide Memorial, the vibrant San Francisco church famous for its joyful gospel choir and decades of service to the city's most marginalized. Glide's program for the homeless figured into the storyline of The Pursuit of Happyness, the 2006 Will Smith film based on Chris Gardner's best-selling memoir about his struggle with homelessness. This clip from the movie, filmed at Glide, includes San Francisco's homeless as extras and features the church's incredible choir:

I'd planned to take my kids to Glide so that we could experience the powerful music and spiritual energy of a diverse urban church. We got all that and more. Knowing that Lemlem had absorbed so many difficult images of homeless African Americans, I felt especially glad that all three children could see African Americans, Asians and whites leading the Glide service together, speaking with passion about addressing ssues of social justice, and inspiring the congregation with song and poetry.

Lemlem especially loved Glide, as I knew she would. The service wasn't even over before she asked me when we could come back. We've already made our donation, and our family has agreed that we'll drive into the city more often and definitely include Glide in our plans. Going back to San Francisco, and back to the church that serves it with such heart, will ensure that our family keeps this important conversation alive.

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