How to Talk to Kids about Homelessness

A homeless family
Photo By AvailableLight/istock/getty images plus

What You Need to Know

As of 2019, more than half a million people experienced homelessness in the United States, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.

As a parent, you want to protect your child from the harsh realities of the world and let them be a kid for as long as possible, but one day the question will come up, ‘Why is that person sleeping outside? Where is their coat? What does that sign say?’

These questions can be uncomfortable, but your answers will shape the way your child learns, grows and interacts with the world around them.

They may first see homelessness on TV, read about it in a book or encounter a homeless person face to face. Children are naturally curious and empathetic. As these cold months roll in, your children are going to notice when people aren’t inside or don’t have warm enough clothes.

Start out with simple, empathetic language when explaining homelessness—especially if your child is very young. Here are some ways to talk about why it happens and what you can do to help.

It Can Happen to Anyone

People become homeless for many reasons. Fleeing violence, loss of income, mental health challenges and natural disasters can all cause displacement. The important message to get across to your child is that something happened that caused a person to not have a home or safe place to go.

This is a good time to bring up homeless shelters. Tell your child that sometimes these shelters are full or there might be special circumstances preventing people from using them—such as being unable to house a beloved pet or having a work schedule incompatible with the shelter’s curfew.

According to a 2021 study from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, 53% of people living in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people are employed. People experiencing homelessness are not homeless by choice. Many are unable to work, and those who are able typically do.

Explain to your child that even though a person may work very hard, that person still might not have enough money to afford a home. This might be because of low income, too many other expenses or because the cost of where they were living increased.

It’s Often Temporary

The median spell of homelessness is 2.6 months, according to an article published in the Journal of Urban Economics. Some people are homeless for longer, but the important thing to convey to your child is that a homeless person will probably have a place to stay again soon.

There are Ways You Can Help

Talking to your kids about homelessness is not an easy conversation. It can evoke feelings of helplessness and sadness. To help your child process what they are learning and feel empowered, let them know that there are ways people can help and set a good example.

Homeless shelters rely heavily on donations and volunteers from the community to operate and provide the best care and support possible. Donating your time, money or items is a great way to help those experiencing homelessness and demonstrate generosity and compassion to your child.

Volunteering or dropping off items are the most visible ways to teach your child about helping those in need. The most common items in demand for homeless shelters include underwear, socks, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, soap, feminine hygiene products, laundry soap, clothing for cold weather, backpacks and deodorant. Check your local shelter’s website for a list of needed items.

Another way to teach your child generosity is to go through their old toys with them and donate those in good condition, or go to the store and have them pick out one item to keep and one to donate to a homeless child.

Above all, remind your child that children experiencing homelessness are no different from them. They enjoy gifts and birthday parties and favorite foods. Learn how you can help locally together as a family.

About Heather M. Ross

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