Here in Charleston, you’ve heard about the clearing of Tent City-the tiny house project and the multitude of non-profits, higher education institutions and concerned citizens looking out for the 5,040 homeless men, women, and children living in the streets of the Holy City. I’m ashamed to say I never really thought much about this epidemic until my daughter asked about the elderly, homeless man who we pass on the way to school every morning. She wanted to know who he was talking to and where he lives.
Her questions were hard to answer. I didn’t feel confident in how to explain homelessness to a four-year-old.
After careful thought, I told my daughter these three things:
- He sits on the ledge at the corner of the intersection because he’s trying to help direct traffic. This is clearly not why he talks to himself, but I couldn’t explain what may be mental illness in the same conversation. I positioned him as a community helper who is making sure people get to work and school safely. I said this because I didn’t want her to only judge him by his disheveled appearance.
- I told her he doesn’t have a home because he doesn’t have the money to afford one. She then asked where he sleeps at night…this question broke my heart. As a four-year-old she assumes everyone has a nice, clean, warm bed filled with dolls and toys and soft blankets. Rather than crush that thought, I told her that there are churches and synagogues that have a place for him to sleep when it’s cold outside.
- Lastly, I explained that people need to help other people. Just like when she helps a friend who gets hurt on the playground or hugs her brother when he’s upset, it’s important show kindness towards others.
My answers to her questions weren’t perfect. They were awkward and made me sad, but they gave us the opportunity to have the conversation and to help her start to develop some context about the world around her. I wanted her to know that everyone doesn’t have everything she does and it’s our responsibility to help take care of others.
Now, it’s up to me to continue teaching this lesson. We will get extra canned goods at the grocery store to donate to a local food pantry each week, we will pick up extra toys at Target to give to a local hospital, and I will seek out opportunities for us to volunteer our time together. These actions aren’t enough, but they are a place to start.
The time we spend doing things for others will serve as a reminder that homelessness is something happening in my city where she and I can become part of the solution. It is never too early to teach your child that everyone needs someone, and it is our responsibility to help take care of them in whatever way we can.