It’s natural as a parent to want to protect your child from the grim realities of this world. Homelessness is one such reality. I have often attempted to divert my child’s attention from encountering a rough sleeper, not least because I don’t want to fill her imagination with the suffering connected with it. But while a worthy justification for the act, does the act itself, really protect her from it?
I would say, no. One in every 200 people in the UK are now without a home, according to the latest figures. I have never seen so many people sleeping rough as I have this Christmas. And never has my daughter asked so many questions about it. It seems pointless shielding her from it, because she’s already a witness, and any attempts to distance her from the dismal circumstances of homelessness won’t safeguard her from the reality it’s there. All it does is display just how unworthy the homeless are of our association or time. And secondly, misses a valuable opportunity.
As parents, our role is to encourage an all-things-equal approach, right? While we should take precaution when engaging with people as vulnerable – and potentially as volatile – as those sleeping rough are, telling ourselves there’s nothing we can do to help doesn’t send a message of equality. Instead, it creates a barrier – a partition between ‘them’ and ‘us’, contributing to the paradox, not just in the moment, but in the minds of our children as well.
We need to remove this idea of division, not instil it. Especially with the homeless, because this is partly what perpetuates the cycle of alienation. I’m not saying you should take your child out into the streets tomorrow and expose him or her with graphic intensity to the horrific conditions homelessness can create. Rather, it’s about inspiring a sense of duty to care. Our children are the ones who will either effectively tackle, or effectively ignore the homeless crisis in the future. Encouraging them to reach out now, will equip them with the practical and emotional tools they will need to change things for the better.
But how best to start, you might ask? As soon as you can, in my opinion. As we move out of the festive season, and into a place of new beginnings, there seems like no better time to start talking with your children about the potential for our Christmas generosity to spread beyond immediate friends and family. And you can open these discussions, with significant action.
Buying a rough sleeper a cup of tea, or offering them food in the presence of your child, is a good start. You only have to do it once and it catches on, I assure you. A child’s natural inclination is to be open to absolutely everything and everyone, and while we should take caution, we should also draw on this innate gift of generosity. Every time my daughter and I pass someone on the street now, we have to buy a drink or sandwich. It doesn’t always work. But the point is, we made the effort, and largely under her steam.
You can also go to greater lengths. In two months my daughter turns five, and I intend to take her to the homeless centre in my home-town of Birmingham, where more than 12,000 people are either sleeping rough or without fixed accommodation. Together, we will serve food to those who otherwise, wouldn’t be eating it. She will experience a sense of collective action, and, most importantly, witness first-hand how she can positively affect the lives of others less fortunate. That there are those less fortunate. And that while food and shelter are basic human rights, there are many who are denied access to them.
And then we’ll talk about why, and what more we can do.