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Dear LAist: How Do I Talk To Kids About Homelessness?

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A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles in this February 9, 2016 file photo. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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Take a look at our homepage any day, and you're likely to come across a story about homelessness -- from efforts to house people, to health standards for homeless shelters to the rise of children who are homeless.

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But those stories are written for adults.

And one of those adults, KPCC listener Victoria Simon, had a question about how to approach the topic with children in a way that includes empathy and compassion, but also keeps safety in mind.

"I am the parent of a six-year-old and a three-year-old and we live in Santa Monica where we come face to face with homelessness every day," she said. "So, how do I thread that needle in terms of educating them and also keeping them safe?"

Here's how.

EMPATHY IS KEY

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Angela Sanchez, left, and Victoria Simon spoke about how to talk to children about homelessness. (Lori Galarreta/LAist)

One of the most important things to keep in mind when talking to children about homelessness is coming from a place of empathy.

"When you tell a child that anyone can be homeless you then can also open up a discussion about the many circumstances that go into homelessness," said author and homeless advocate Angela Sanchez.

She wrote and illustrated the children's book Scruffy and the Egg, which was inspired by stories Sanchez and her father used to tell each other in her teen years when they were experiencing homelessness.

Simon and Sanchez met up in studio for KPCC's Take Two -- to have a candid conversation about how to explain homelessness to children. Here's a rundown of some of Sanchez's advice based on her own experience with being homeless.

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ANYONE CAN BE HOMELESS

"We see homelessness and poverty as tied to ideas of merit and so when you tell a child that anyone can be homeless, you also open up the discussion about the many circumstances that go into homelessness," said Sanchez.

Though the most visible type of person experiencing homelessness are the individuals we see out in the streets, Sanchez went on to explain families comprise 40 percent of the total homeless population. And about 25 percent of all people experiencing homelessness are under the age of 18.

"The average age is eight years old," Sanchez said. "When I talk to kids about that, I usually say that means a third grader is the most likely type of child you will see who is homeless."


LA Explained: Homelessness


MAKE THINGS AS CONCRETE AS POSSIBLE

Sanchez has found that when she speaks to kids about homelessness and reveals that the most common age is close to or exactly their own, something clicks. It makes an otherwise abstract concept far more tangible, understandable and relatable. The reaction is one full of empathy.

"Usually the response that I've gotten is 'Oh, how do I help?' or 'I've never seen another homeless kid' or 'How do I know when someone is homeless.'" Sanchez said.

It's at this point in the conversation, she suggests, you list out different ways they, as children, can make an impact.

SHOW THEM THEY CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT

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Volunteers serve the homeless at the Los Angeles Mission's annual Christmas meal on December 22, 2017. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

There are a lot of ways people can our city's homeless population. But children often see the world differently and have an endless supply of compassion.

Simon brought up how her six-year-old son suggested housing a homeless person in their home as a way of helping out. She found herself at a loss of how to respond. Sanchez proposed focusing on impact.

"You can always turn around and say: Think about all the help that you need in one day and I live with you. And so being able to list those things and say, this is someone else who will also need that kind of stuff too."

When you can break down the basic building blocks of a situation that makes it more consumable. Here are some more concrete ways you can suggest to help:

  • Volunteer at a family soup kitchen - For young kids, it's best to have them interacting with families and other children they could possibly relate to.
  • Lend an ear - Volunteer once a month to sit and speak with someone and give them your full attention.
  • School On Wheels, Inc. - They work with K-12 kids who are experiencing homelessness and their whole focus is to provide volunteer tutors.

KEEPING SAFETY IN MIND

One of the main concerns that kept popping up during Simon and Sanchez's conversation was that of safety.

"Sometimes when you're with your kids, you don't know whether it's appropriate to step in," Simon said. "You don't know how that person's day is going or whether it's an appropriate thing to do."

To that point, Sanchez brought up the vulnerability of the homeless population.

"By and large, it's quite the opposite," she said. "People who are homeless are generally the most vulnerable to assault. Sexual, physical or otherwise."

However, when it comes to individual safety being a concern, especially when it comes to checking for lucidity, Sanchez said "you can always say, 'it's okay to ask people how they're doing today.'"

And when kids get a little older, she advises "helping them decide when they would like to intervene and what kind of judgment they should be using."


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