I didn’t see homeless people growing up in my rural Oregon hometown. I’m sure they were there, but it looked different than in the city. Living in Montana, there weren’t many homeless on the streets there either; the living conditions are just too harsh.
When we moved to Portland my daughter was three; the landscape was vastly different from the clean, wide streets and mountain views we were used to. We now saw men and women on many street corners holding signs and were confronted with the brokenness in up close and personal ways. My daughter was quick to ask questions. “Mommy, why is that man holding a sign?” “Why doesn’t he have food or a home?” Those are complex questions to explain to a toddler. Even more complex was her next question, “Why don’t you give him something?”
Why don’t I give him something? Do I pretend we don’t see them and just walk or drive on by? Do I have prejudices getting in the way? Is it helpful to give them money? What do I think about this and what do I want to teach my kids?
Having children often makes us face things that we may not want to, but their curious minds are trying to figure this world out and they often want answers. There are plenty of “But why…” questions that have stopped to make my husband and I think, as well as act, thanks to our sweet kids.
It took us a while to figure out how we would answer these questions and what we would actually do when we saw a homeless person. I am often brought to tears by the encounters I’ve had with homeless or hurting individuals, and although I don’t always appreciate my empathetic side, I do hope my tears help teach my kids compassion.
Here are some things that we practically implement to teach our kids compassion and offer help:
- It’s okay to say hi and smile or even engage homeless people in conversation. They are real people with stories, and they deserve to be acknowledged.
- There are not always black and white answers for why people are homeless. This is a complex issue. This lifestyle may be chosen for some but others are there because of loss of jobs, sickness, or a crisis they didn’t choose. Choose to love anyway, even if you don’t understand.
- If you feel compelled to give money, you can, but often a meal is even better. (We’ve been advised in working with organizations like Portland Rescue Mission not to hand them money.)
- Hand them a Ziploc bag with some helpful items in it. We include socks, a granola bar, toiletries, kleenex, gloves, etc. depending on what we have on hand. We keep these in our car and hand them out when we have the opportunity. My kids always ask if we have one that they can give out when they see someone holding a sign. (Now that it’s getting cold, socks and gloves will definitely be needed by many.)
- Host a Care Kit Party where you put Ziploc bags together with your friends and kids. You all leave with baggies ready to go for your car and you’ve had a party while doing it.
- Serve or give with organizations like the Portland Rescue Mission, Union Gospel Mission, or Night Strike. There are many great organizations that serve the homeless in our city. Those are the ones with which my family has experience.
- Take food to a food pantry.
- Donate your family’s clothes when you’ve outgrown them. Shepherd’s Door is a great spot!
Looking a hurting person in the eye, seeing beyond the exterior, and teaching our children to do the same builds compassion and empathy. My heart has grown and been changed by really seeing and engaging the homeless. Helping to meet even the smallest need can be what helps someone to make it one more day, to feel cared for and give hope.
Allowing our children to be a part of helping someone else helps them to see beyond their toy filled rooms, overflowing sippy cup and goldfish bowl to a world with needs. My little people love to help others, sometimes more than I do. Let’s help our kids learn early that they, too, can give back and help a hurting world, one small act of kindness at a time.
What about your family, do you have any other ideas for us? How do you help cultivate compassion and meet needs of the homeless and hurting around you?