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.