• I recently stopped in to a sandwich shop to grab a bite with my six year-old son.  While we were waiting to order a disheveled and dirty looking man walked up and down the line of patrons, with his hand extended, asking for money. Immediately everyone in the line turned their heads as if to read the menu or focus elsewhere just to avoid making eye contact. My son turned toward me and asked, “Dad, why is he asking for money?” I was embarrassed because my son was loud, was staring and pointing right at the disheveled man.  As I handed him some change, I quickly responded, “For the same reason you do…because he wants to buy something,” and left it at that. I didn’t think that it was the time or the place to discuss the homeless. There were several people in line dressed in suits and a Husky looking man behind me, dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt, put his hand up and stopped the homeless man.  I tensed up thinking that he was going to berate him, but he said, “Hey, can I get you something to eat?”  I relaxed and after we ordered I watched this confident and generous man quietly buy the homeless man a meal and go on his way.

    Immediately everyone in the line turned their heads as if to read the menu or focus elsewhere just to avoid making eye contact

    While eating our lunch my son had a million questions about what had transpired. He’d seen homeless people in the past but not up close. Of course, he noticed everything and was curious as kids usually are. Below are some of the questions and discussions we had that day.

    1. 1. Why do they look so dirty? – Homeless people often don’t have a place to sleep, shower, and eat. You often see people sleeping in parks, on the streets, in cars, or wherever they can find shelter. They make do with what they have and have to defend themselves against Mother Nature as well as staying safe from crime on the streets.
    2. 2. How can we tell if people really need help?   – There are people who struggle with whether some homeless individuals really need the help or are just taking advantage of the system. The truth is that we can never know whether someone really needs the help or not. Our role is to not judge others. If they’re asking for help, do what you can and be thankful that you’re not the one asking.
    3. 3. Why don’t they get a job?  – The obstacles to employment include everything from economical difficulties to medical or mental health problems. Often the medical or mental illnesses go untreated, which may impair their ability to hold a job. If you can’t shower and sleep safely it would make it hard to keep your hygiene and appearance up well enough to get and keep a job.
    4. 4. Why is he talking to himself? – Not all homeless people are mentally ill. Yet many are.  If not treated, some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can cause people to hear voices, to which they sometimes respond, so you might see them talking to themselves.
    5. 5. But that guy doesn’t look homeless!  – There is no stereotypical homeless person as it can happen to people from all walks of life. Any major event or crisis may trigger a downfall, in which the individual has no place to go.
    6. 6. Where is his/her family? – It may very well be that the individual isn’t from this area or simply has no family or friends available to help him/her. Sometimes family is available but for some reason the family or individual severed ties. There’s also the possibility that these individuals are missing persons, lost due to a mental illness or have fled for various reasons (crime, immigration, etc).
    7. 7. What can I do to help them?  – Of course food and other supplies are always helpful along with volunteer work. You can also provide them with information on where they to get services.  However, always be sure to treat people with respect.  Do not tease or make fun of them, regardless of their situation or how they look.
    8. 8. Should we call for someone to come out and help them?  – Everyone, including homeless people have rights. The reality is that they can live however they choose as long as they live within certain guidelines. They cannot be medically treated against their will unless they are suicidal (wanting to kill themselves), homicidal (wanting to kill others), or are gravely disabled (unable to care for themselves; like walking naked in the cold rain, walking into oncoming traffic, etc).  Otherwise, they have the option of seeking assistance on their own.
    9. 9. What happens when they get sick? – They do have medical resources like free clinics, shelters, welfare, and counseling, if they choose to go. It’s not easy for them to recuperate since they don’t have a stable environment and are still vulnerable to the outside elements.
    10. 10. Are there any homeless kids?  – Often children will ask this when they are scared that it might happen to them. The reality is that there are a lot of homeless children out there for a variety of reasons which can include having homeless parents, running away from home, abandonment, etc. The concept of homelessness will scare your children without you making it scary or them. So talk to your children about how homeless children may miss school and sometimes turn to negative influences to survive. Remind them that there are special shelters (in Los Angeles we have the Covenant House, Los Angeles Youth Network, etc) where services are specifically tailored for them. Reassure them that they are not in danger of being homeless.

    Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable or a little frightening to be around homeless people. The reality is that some homeless people may have mental health or hygiene problems due to their circumstances but nonetheless, deserve to be treated as human beings. Though it might be easier to just cross the street because it’s “Not my problem,” actually it is! We don’t live in a bubble and the problem does exist. If you treat those who struggle with disdain or contempt, they might be forced to respond in kind. Remember they’re in survival mode, which can cause people to react more aggressively, especially if provoked.  If you’ve had a bad experience then keep in mind that there are rotten apples in every group. We’re not all dealt the same hand in life so try to help others where you can. Good deeds are contagious but unfortunately the bad ones are too. Remember to do the right thing even when no one is looking. Exposure and education can alleviate many fears, so our family volunteers, at donation centers, shelters, and food banks. Doing this helps to personalize the issue and gives each of us perspective.  Seeing what people don’t have often makes you appreciate what you do! Whether or not you believe that god is watching, you can be sure that your kids are.