“What do you feel or think when you walk by a man or woman sleeping on the street?”
“I feel disappointed.”
“Disappointed in who?”
The young boy sat still, thoughtfully turning the question around in his mind, feeling it in his heart. He looked up at me, tears filling his eyes.
“Disappointed in our world.”
As the conversation among adults about homelessness in our city heightens, I thought it might be enlightening to ask my first-grade students their opinion.
For employed, housed adults, walking by men and women who are living on the street is nothing new, especially if you’ve lived in Seattle in recent years. People who are homeless become nameless as they are forced to blend into the city backdrop. I read an article recently about two adult women taking a selfie in front of a mural while they mindlessly stepped over a man sleeping on the ground. That same week, I read another article about a young girl who sews purses, fills them with basic necessities and gifts them to women living on the street.
The child solved the problem with love while the adults modeled detached ignorance.
I decided it was time to ask the kids. I threw the question in the air and listened as they took it and bounced it around the room.
“I feel really bad. Once we walked by a man living in the park. He gave us a book, but we didn’t give him anything. Why didn’t we give him something?”
“I think we should help them. But my dad doesn’t believe in helping them.”
“My mom used to work in a shelter but it was too hard on her, it was too sad. She had to quit.”
“I feel sad; they lost their money when they were a kid and couldn’t pay their taxes.”
“I sorta feel bad, but not really. Once in a restaurant a man asked for pizza and when we didn’t give him anything, he yelled at me.”
“Yeah, but what if you were a homeless person and you were hungry?”
“Some of them might take the money people give them and buy cigarettes but not all of them.”
I listened until I saw the flushed expressions of confusion, concern and determination wash over the group of children sitting in front of me.
“OK, let’s wrap this up now,” I said.
“No! I want to keep talking about this. My parents never talk about this.”
“All right, one more question. You always need to be safe and aware, but how should you treat strangers you see living on the streets?”
“We should treat them nice.”
“Give them our smile.”
One little girl stood up, her cheeks flushed bright red and she said loudly, “I want to help them. I want to help us and do something about it.”
I smiled and felt proud of my students.
“Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. This is just something to think about,” I said, bringing the conversation to a close.
Our brief conversation taught me three things: 1) The kids didn’t suggest money, food or shelter. Rather, they chose to first acknowledge the humanity in others with kindness. 2) Kids almost always directly mirror what their parents say and think. 3) Kids are ready and willing to talk about human rights while adults would rather shield them from these difficult injustices.
We live in a city where homelessness can no longer be ignored and tucked away neatly at night. It’s crucial to engage children in this conversation. They need the space and freedom to process something that is part of their daily existence. They have brave visions and solutions that far surpass the limited, often ignorant dialogue that adults participate in. They deserve the opportunity to embrace their own feelings and thoughts, instead of blindly inheriting ours.
Give your kids the chance to teach you the true meaning of compassion. Talk to them about the homelessness crisis in our city.
Faith Eakin is a teacher who is determined to empower youth through education, travel and kindness.