Talking to kids about homelessness

27th September 2019

Words by Bee Whitaker at Helping Hands of London

Bee Whitaker launched Helping Hands of London as a summer project while at university in 2017. At the time, she was also working for Facebook, who, like loads of tech giants, offer their employees more perks than you can imagine and restaurant meals three times a day. Outside the office was a totally different story and over the course of her time there, she met and befriended several local homeless people, who she smuggled snacks out to and had regular conversations about their life on the street.

These people didn’t just need food and shelter, they needed toothbrushes, tampons, deodorant and umbrellas; basics that seemed to be missed off of the list. Bee’s idea was to put together bags of essential items that she could distribute, by hand, through the homeless communities of London. That’s still the premise of Helping Hands today and Bee’s work is still going strong with regular fundraising drives and bag drops throughout the year.

She knows more about homelessness than anyone I know and is perfect for writing this piece, which will hopefully give you a few starters for ten when it comes to this sensitive subject.

Teaching kids about homelessness isn’t easy and there’s no one size fits all conversation. But if there’s one thing I’d suggest to pretty much anyone, it’s to educate yourself first.

If you know a lot already, great. That means you can go deeper and prepare yourself for those inevitable and often unexpected questions. Personally, I think the best way to do that is through reading articles (like this one) and papers on why homelessness happens in the first place and how it’s dealt with in different areas. If you don’t have time for that – and I’m guessing most people reading this are parents with limited time on their hands – I’d strongly recommend a book by Tamsen Courtenay called Four Feet Under. To write this book, Courtenay went to London and sat with lots of rough sleepers, talking to them about their experiences. I think it carefully covers a difficult topic whilst still being brutally honest and emotive.

Once you’ve got a better understanding of the subject yourself, it’s time to get the kids involved. One of the most obvious places it comes up is when you’re out and about, children see people sleeping rough and ask what they’re doing or why they’re there. For younger kids, it’s best to answer in really simple terms, like “they don’t have a house to live in”. When you’re hit with the “why?”, I always think it’s important to mention a couple of different reasons that would be easy for them to understand such as:

  • They might not have a mummy and/or daddy like you to look after them and so when they had a problem, they didn’t have someone to help them like you do
  • They might have had a home before but couldn’t pay for it anymore (if they ask why this happens, it really depends on their level of understanding. Some children will be satisfied to know they don’t have a job, others will want to know why they didn’t have a job. It is helpful to explain then about how some jobs aren’t reliable or guaranteed)
  • They might be poorly and unable to work and are therefore unable to pay for a house
  • They might have lived with somebody who wasn’t very nice so they had to leave and didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Of course, the understanding varies hugely. Some kids will want to go into more detail whereas others will already have bitten off more than they can chew. For the more inquisitive types, I recommend explaining each of these scenarios in as much detail as possible without upsetting them. You know your child and while it’s great to educate them, you don’t want to fill them with anxiety about you losing your job and having to live on the street.

For younger children, there are some great books that can explain homelessness a little but most importantly, will explain the importance of empathy in these situations. One that I recommend is “The Last Chip” by Duncan Beedie – it offers a subtle look at the issue but leaves a lasting message.

Perhaps the most important part of teaching children about homelessness is teaching them how to react to it. Once they understand what it is, a lot of kids will want to do something about it, but unfortunately, inviting every homeless person that you see to live with you isn’t always an option! What I’ve done in the past with my cousins (aged 3 and 4), is to go up to someone sleeping rough and ask if they’re okay or if I can get them anything from the shop. Asking what they want is a really important step because in their lives, choice is rare. Yes, it’s lovely to buy them a sandwich but maybe they’ve got an allergy or have already eaten six that lunchtime.

Armed with their answer, what I tend to do is take the kids into the shop and get them to help me find whatever it is they’ve asked for, then let them pick a sweet or treat for them too. When we leave, the kids will help me hand over the goods and I’ll then answer any questions they have on the way home.

I’ve also helped children to wrap up little Christmas presents for homeless people, such as Christmassy tubes of sweets, so they have something to open on Christmas Day. By letting them see the importance of conversation and empathy, I hope this will help them to grow up with a similar attitude.

As we all know, not every homeless person is necessarily someone you’d want to introduce to young children and it should go without saying that if you ever feel unsafe, don’t put yourself or your kids in danger. Having said that, of the 100 homeless people I see each time we give out the Helping Hands bags, there are only a couple who I don’t feel safe approaching. I guess what I mean is to look out for real danger (drugs, weapons, violence) rather than just someone who looks a little sad or scruffy.

I hope this has given you some food for thought and a couple of new ways into this sensitive subject with kids. The goal for me when it comes to teaching children about homelessness is to raise some awesome, empathetic humans who will eventually be part of the solution. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like to learn more about Helping Hands of London or get involved as a volunteer, fundraiser or corporate partner, visit their website and chat to Bee about what’s coming up.

Helping Hands is a registered charity operating in London. Its registered charity number is 1181363


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