Wednesday, September 19, 2007

shelter-(ed)?

A few posts ago Ally asked: Jen, I'm wondering whether you'd consider posting a general post about homelessness sometime soon. Specifically, I'm interested in knowing your take on: 1) how to explain homelessness to children in terms they understand; 2) how to best respond to pan-handlers/road signs;3) how to best involve our children in finding solutions.

And I've sat on it for a few days because while I have my own thoughts I am in no way an expert or would I ever claim that I have the right answers to how others choose to teach their kids about poverty and how to live alongside it. But what I can do is share what I am trying to do for M. So I'll attempt your first and third question and leave the second for another post.

I suppose it depends on the type of homelessness. The dude on the street corner who's ranting to the wind or the kid sitting next to mine because 1 in 5 in this country alone live below the poverty line, a staggering statistic all it's own. Either way it's about suffering. And how we choose to interact with that suffering. Some folks turn away. Some are scared. Some stop and help. Some volunteer and work and try to alleviate suffering. To be honest, I do all four depending on the day. Sometimes I am tired and the guy at the grocery store freaks me out. Other times I feel the blessings of all blessings that I've gotten to know and support such amazingly strong people. People who've survived with so much less than me. Sometimes I just don't know what to do.

I talk to M about homelessness a lot. Whenever we see someone on the street and she notices we talk about it. I tell her where I am taking the clothes and toys she's outgrown. I tell her why I have to work late sometimes or on the weekends. And when we talk about it we talk about all of it, how we as a country have failed to allow for equity for all, how some folks try and try and still can't find a place to live. How some folks are in so much pain and have no family and they are sad and make others sad too. How it's not a problem with a specific person but a problem with our collective way of thinking. Simply what is mine shouldn't just be mine if others need it too.

I don't know how much sinks in, but I do know nothing has made as much of an impression as when we are actually interacting with folks themselves. When she comes to the shelter she sees it as helping people go sleepytime. But I am lucky because I have a ready-made forum to immerse her in. She was at the shelter with me last winter when a man was overdosing and she saw bits of the crisis and it confused her. I don't know what to do when bad things happen but I don't know how to always avoid it because sometimes it's messy but most of the time it's not.

And to be honest I don't know how much I should shield her from, because I often think the over-shielding is a problem. As long as she's safe, she doesn't need to feel scared. She can see odd looking people and they can smile and laugh at her. She can run around garbage bags filled with someone's life and not be freaked out by the smell. Because to her it's not all that unusual, not yet anyways. And with odds being one in five chances are she'll be in school with homeless kids and have friends who struggle so better she learns how to understand it now.

So what does all of this mean in terms of practicality, in terms of teaching our children? First, it has to be something you want to teach them. Education about the state of our union and the way many folks have to struggle. That alone can be scary, the world is not supposed to be as unkind as ours. Second, you've got to find a way to give them some hands on experience. This can be done in a variety of ways: organize a drive and take the kids to the shelter to donate the goods. Sign up to serve a meal. Volunteer to tutor kids or participate in some sort of programming offered in your community. Adopt a family at the holidays, sponsor their Thanksgiving meal or their holiday gifts. Those things won't end homelessness but let me tell you, it matters a lot to the families involved. I've seen hundreds of families benefit from the kindness of strangers at the holidays and the joy on the kids faces and the utter relief from parents who had no earthly idea how to make a holiday special with no money living in a shelter. Because poverty doesn't make you less of a mother. We all want the same things in the end. A safe place to live. Food on the table. Happy kids. I won't say there aren't horror stories but it's the exception rather than the rule. Third, teach them about philanthropy. Have them watch you donate money or go without something in order to share it with others. It can be small but it will have an impact because our actions say a lot.

If I sound preachy please forgive me. I hate preachy, it's not my intent and I do fully realize this isn't everyone's gig. But poverty is poverty and one false move and the house of cards crumbles, our illusion of stability devastated. We all go to sleep wanting the same things: food, safety, hope and dreams. And the world we live in, it comes with this suffering. And I want M to grow up and have it matter to her. Have her see beyond the individual to the reasons why and want to do something about it or at least find compassion for others instead of judgment, action instead of pity, drive instead of fear. Because we'll all suffer the longer this goes on and our future depends on collective kindnesses and a willingness to stand up. We are all in this together after all.

I've got a review up about sneakers over at my review blog. Nothing much to do with homelessness but a girl can't rant about it all the time either.

39 comments:

Geneviève said...

The point is here:" taking the clothes and toys she's outgrown"

bgirl said...

thank you so much for this Jen. I am so happy that Ally posed the question that has been in my head on many occasions. What a thoughtful, well-written and empowering response.

i am re-reading to be sure i take it all in, then i'm re-reading again to be sure i can relate it back to my own little dude.

i've said it before and i'm saying it again...you rock sister.

Christine said...

thanks for being you, jen.

all of these things should be taught to our children everyday. and, yes, if they are safe there is no reason they should be scared.

Gwen said...

Not preachy. Impassioned.

So many people are just hanging on by their fingernails, it's true. One piece of bad luck and boom! it's over. I hate that we as a society have all sorts of ways to twist that--the role of luck--to blame the impoverished for their poverty.

Blog Antagonist said...

What Gwen said is right on the money. And thank God there are people like you who are impassioned about homelessness.

I'm trying to teach my kids, but it's so hard where we live. Affluence is a rampant disease and nobody wants to be cured. (We are not affluent, but live in an affluent area).

Thanks for all you do, Jen. Truly.

Janet said...

You are raising a little girl who will grow into a compassionate and caring woman. We should all aspire to do the same.

I try to instill in my children the notion that we are fortunate, so VERY fortunate, to have what we have. We give to the food and warm clothing drives at school. I take them to choose toys at Christmastime that they would love, and then we go and give them to the Tree of Hope Campaign for children who wouldn't get presents otherwise. Yet I know that we could do more. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on how that can happen.

Beck said...

Where we live - in a tiny little town - homelessness is not precisely an issue, but extreme poverty is. We're doing what we can to make our kids compassionate people - the kids made little packets in Sunday School for the many hitchhikers who pass through our town, with soap, packets of coffee and hot chocolate, toothbrushes, a card, and coupons for meals and hotel rooms, which I thought was a beautiful, child-sized project.

Mrs. Chicky said...

You have a good heart, friend. This information is so important and I will try my best to put some of these suggestions into action in my life.

BOSSY said...

Bossy loves that you moved from Preaching to Sneakers in under seven words.

thailandchani said...

I liked this post. And I particularly like that you put homelessness in context for M. That's the most important thing, teaching her (and other kids) that there is a reason for it.. and it doesn't have to be that way. It's the social system chosen by the majority that creates the problem for the minority.


Peace,

~Chani
http://thailandgal.blogspot.com

slouching mom said...

You're doing it just right with M, babe. Just right. But I imagine you knew that already.

crazymumma said...

Thank you for this.

Sometimes I am at a loss for words in explaining some issues with my girls.

A bit more clarity helps.

Kyla said...

You are doing such great things for her. She is going to grow up beautifully.

mitzh said...

You are wonderful and truly beautiful and I am sure she will be too, when she grow up.

NotSoSage said...

Jen, this is beautiful and thoughtful. I wanted to tell you a story about a man that we met on a park bench the other day who fussed over Mme L the whole time and with whom she shared her slice of pizza. It was lovely and I was so glad that she was both as shy and as open with that man as she has been with anyone else. She has no concept of his being any different from anyone else except for his living circumstances.

Ever heard "Junkie Song" by the Be Good Tanyas? The line "I could easily be you" repeats over and over again. I want her to have that recognition without having it scare her. Thanks for your words, here.

painted maypole said...

This is really wonderful and practical and heartfelt and not at all preachy. It is encouraging to me to hear from someone who works with this day in and day out that I am doing some things right, and to learn more about what I can be doing. Thank you.

mamatulip said...

What I love the most about you is that you are showing and teaching M all of this. And she will grow up and show her friends and her family and her children. And it will be a good cycle.

nomotherearth said...

I don't think it's preachy at all, just helpful.

A question for you: When would you start things like serving a meal, or helping at food drives? The Boy is 2.5 and I think that's probably too early. Obviously I can do other things to help introduce the subject, but I'd like to make family volunteering a tradition.

kristen said...

I always love when you break it down for me here my friend. And my girl (as you know) is interested in helping homeless people, seeing people on the street in NYC has caught her attention and she asked how we can help. I want to sign us up to serve meals and I don't really know how to go about doing that. Can you suggest how to find places that need help? And do you have any suggestions on organizations or drives that the kids (especially my girl's brownies) could organize/participate in?

Momish said...

Those are great advice tips, Jen. As poor as we were growing up, my mother was always the first to point out all we DID have and what so many other did not.

I hope to raise my daughter to be generous and open minded. I loved what you said at the end, it really gave me chills:

"find compassion for others instead of judgment, action instead of pity, drive instead of fear"

You are an amazing thinker, my friend. But more importantly, you act on all those wonderful thoughts!

flutter said...

This is so exactly how I envision your brain. Nice place.

urban-urchin said...

I like the find compassion and action bit. speaks volumes.

ms chica said...

One of the best ways you will teach M is by your example. You walk the walk, Jen. Your compassion transcends lip service, it converts passion into action.

Amy York said...

Thank you so much... I've been hoping for answers to these questions too. I am anxiously awaiting your answer to question #2, also. You are a peach, just a real peach. :)

liv said...

This is just about what I envision when I think of you: A woman carrying around so much on her heart. We've been working on the idea of monthly picking 2 or 3 things for children who might need a toy or piece of clothing. It doesn't have to be outgrown or unloved. It just has to be something that we're ready to let go of. I think nonattachment needs to start early.

Her Bad Mother said...

You need to put this post on a list of must-reads, on your sidebar. For real.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Thanks Jen, for this, and no, you weren't being preachy, not at all, after all, someone asked.

KC said...

Loved this. Love what you are giving her- an open heart, a generous soul. Love you.

Jenn said...

Ranting?

Speaking from the heart, more like.

You move me.

alejna said...

Thanks for sharing your passion and your ideas. (I didn't find it preachy at all. Or maybe I'm already a convert?)

Ally said...

Jen, thank you thank you for this post! The bit about "over-shielding" got to me. It is difficult to find a balance between protecting our kids from what's scary (the knowledge that the world isn't always good or just-- housefires, homelessness, war, killing animals-- these are the things of childhood nightmares) and equipping them to fight for justice in this unjust, mean world. This post shows us how to do just that. Thank you for the concrete examples of what we can do. I'm taking notes.

Aliki2006 said...

So many of my own students teeter on the edge of becoming statistics themselves: homeless, on the streets, addicted to drugs. Sometimes the difference is that people have reached out to them, pulled them up, helped them realize that they are worth something, too.

Keep the work up--I so applaud you.

FENICLE said...

I work with high school kids in a prevention program...anyways, I encounter "helicopter parents" frequently.

There is such a fine line from guiding & molding them and controlling their every move...

GOOD POST!!

Seattle Mamacita said...

i'm taking notes too..thanks for this post. I think in the end I want to be honest with G..I once saw an ad spraypainted on the wall of a homeless man reaching out his hand and it read "i don't want your pennies I just want change" and i want G to be a part of thinking about that change...

Susanne said...

Thank you very much for this. I will be thinking about involving the political factor in my own explanation a bit.

Where I live there are literally no homeless people on the street. They are all in the big city and there they are to be found only in certain areas. I'm not sure whether this is because there actually are less homeless people or whether they are driven out of the inner city. Probably a mixture of both.

This hit me when we were in Paris and met much more people living on the street than what we're used to.

Little Monkies said...

A good friend of mine was walking in downtown Seattle with her 3 year old daughter when they happened upon a homeless man retching in a doorway. My friend immediately swung her child around to shield her from seeing the man. About 5 minutes later, her daughter said, "Mommy, I think that man needed a washcloth", which was what she got when she was sick and vomiting...she got a cool washcloth for her forehead and it made things better.

It's pretty simple when you think about it. He needed someone to help him feel better. Unfettered by all of the crap we are socialized on homelessness, she cut to the truth pretty quickly.

I think about this story all of the time. You are right, overshielding is a problem. I think we shield our kids because we don't know how to answer the questions that we are , in some ways, embarrassed to ask to ourselves.

KarenP said...

What a great post. It's so important to talk about these things with our kids while they're young. The elementary teacher in me can't resist recommending a powerful children's book called Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting (NOT to be confused with the movie by the same name about the girl who flies alongside geese in her airplane!). This book is about a young boy and his father who are homeless and live as unobtrusively as possible in an airport, because "anything's better than living on the street." The book is geared for ages 5-9 or so and should lead to some great discussions with your child.
KarenP--one of Ally's readers

Emily said...

The post is interesting on several levels.
1) It reminds me that I am doing too much ignoring of homeless people.
2) I love your head-on approach to teaching kids about inequity.
3) I am exposing my kids to foreign languages because now is the time they are most easily going to learn to speak other languages. Now is also the time they are most easily going to learn compassion.

Great post!

Bon said...

late as usual (i am the dinosaur who resists a blog reader) but Jen, this is a really important post...thoughtful and useful, not preachy.

i was particularly struck by the part about not being scared, if you're safe. i'm starting to wonder if people know how to feel safe any more, those of us who don't struggle on a daily basis and are increasingly isolated from any sense of community with those who do. because i sat with a group of friends the other night, mostly mothers, all comfortable civil servants, and the discourse of fear around that table blew my mind.

i will be mindful of what you've written here. and may try to find words to address the above.