Parenting for the Perplexed: How to respond to heartfelt questions about homelessness

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via

I overheard this conversation on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, right between the Bank of America and the Cheese Board. “Mommy, why is the man lying on the street?” “He … must be tired.” “So why doesn’t he go home to take a nap?” “He doesn’t have a home.” “Why?” “Some people don’t have enough money to have a house or an apartment to live in.” “So why doesn’t he buy some money from the machine, like we did?” “To get money from the machine you have to first give it to the bank.” “Why?” “It’s complicated … Shall we go into the Cheese Board? Do you want a baguette or a wolverine?” How would you explain homelessness to young children? — C.B. in Berkeley

Dear C.B.:
This question is especially appropriate during the week of Sukkot. I don’t know about you, but my sukkah is a lot more comfortable than the pavement in Berkeley, a highway underpass or a lean-to in a far-off corner of the park. Not to mention that in only five steps I’m back inside my very comfortable house.

Sometimes when kids ask a simple question, they put us in an uncomfortable spot. The problem of homelessness is complicated. But a child’s naive question reminds us that it ought to be self-evident that every person should have a home.

As for what should you say and do, start by engaging your child in a longer conversation rather than changing the subject. Explain the basic facts:

• Some people don’t have enough money to buy or rent a home.

• There are places called “homeless shelters” where such people can stay, at least for a while, but not enough for everyone who needs them. There are shelters for adults who are by themselves and also for families. Support your child if she’s outraged that there are kids who don’t have a home.

• The people we see sleeping on the street usually have a lot of problems “with their feelings and their thinking.” This makes it hard for them to stay at those shelters or find a job and earn money for a place to live.

Now ask your child what she thinks about that. Expect and encourage expressions of empathy, concern and anger at the way things are. Next tell your child what you yourself do. Do you contribute to any homeless services in your city? To a food bank or shelter? If not … get cracking.

Consider your position on panhandling. Do you give a small amount? Or do you not, because it encourages begging and the money is probably used for alcohol? Are you uncomfortable with either choice? I am.

Here in Berkeley we had a system called Berkeley Cares. You purchased city-issued coupons in small denominations at various stores. They were good for food, transportation, laundry and subsidized hotels. The coupons were very popular with Berkeleyans like me, but evidently not with the homeless. Plus, apparently there was a black/gray market in them, so they were discontinued. What I usually do now is decline to give money but ask the person if he or she would like some pastry or a piece of fruit from a store I’m near.

What is your policy? Does your child understand it? Can he see that you care? If not, perhaps you want to consider doing something that will demonstrate your compassion in a more concrete way.

If your child seems really troubled (which you should welcome as indicating a capacity for compassion and a sense of justice), take further steps:

l Volunteer at a shelter (serving meals, planting a garden, etc.).

l Have your child make holiday cards for kids in a shelter.

l Collect books/toys to donate.

l Volunteer at a food bank.

l Organize your synagogue to adopt a shelter and/or provide meals or housing during the winter.

This is a great opportunity to talk with your child about how lucky she is with everything she has, both material and not, and to foster gratitude, the foundation of generosity.

Rachel Biale