I see her as we approach the red light and slow to a stop. I don’t know her name, but in my mind I always call her Jane. We’ve never spoken, though I have seen her many, many times through my windshield.
Fingers tight together, she’s waving with one raised hand, like the Queen from her carriage to her loyal subjects. She smiles a huge, toothy ear-to-ear smile that makes her eyes squint just a little and gives off a feeling like she is on top of the world. Arms, face, and hands are deeply tanned from the sun, and the wind flutters her billowy pants and tied-back mousy hair. In her non-waving hand she holds a cardboard sign where in crude black letters it says:
Jane and others like her are a common sight here in Portland, where the mild weather and progressive social services policies make the number of homeless and panhandlers plentiful and visible. Almost all major highway off-ramps will have their regulars, and those nearest to our house are no different. There’s George, the older man with the rusty blue walker who sometimes stops traffic as he inches his way across the street, too slow to make it all the way while the light is green. And there’s Oliver, the genial one-armed man, who briefly disappeared around the same time graffiti near his usual spot named him as a Police “snitch.” The sight of Jane always strikes me the most though. I think it’s the giant smile, that looks so incredibly happy, in juxtaposition to the plea on her sign. Suddenly, her ever-present smile seems more likely to have its root in mental illness than in her finding joy in the midst of suffering.
“Dada, that lady is homeless, right?” asks my 5-year-old from the back seat.
He already knows the answer, as we’ve been talking about who these people we see by the side of the road with their signs are since shortly after moving here. It’s not always an easy conversation though. Tucker has such an empathic heart, but such a limited understanding of the world.
I certainly don’t have all the answers for him. I’m no expert, even having grown up heavily involved with the Salvation Army and keenly aware of the need for hope and grace and a hand to hold or a hand up in the midst of desperation. When it comes to talking to him about the homeless that he sees, I try to keep it simple and focus on a few basic things:
I rarely bring up the issue (the exception is #4 below) and instead wait for him to ask a question. Like most things, I find he’s a lot more receptive to my answers and input if he is the one who started the conversation. If your kids are like mine, any subject new to them will inspire a seemingly endless string of “WHY?” questions. They aren’t always easy to answer (are they ever?), but I try my best, and always err on the side of kindness and grace for the people he is asking about.
This is probably the most important part right now. I deeply believe that any discussion on how and why people become homeless should come from a place of empathy and sadness about their situation, rather than a place of judgement. We discuss how some people are homeless because they lost their job, or got sick, or hurt, or simply didn’t have enough money to pay for a place to live. We talk about how some of them made poor choices, while others found themselves in tough situations and didn’t have anyone to help them. We talk about how, though he won’t often see them, many of the homeless people we see have children who are also homeless and deeply affected by poverty.
Whenever possible, I try to transition to talking about how thankful we are to have the things we do have, like food, a place to live, nice clothes and toys, and lots of friends and family. It’s amazing how easily my son sees the connection, and I love how selfishness diminishes the more he is aware that so many have so much less.
The question on if/when you should hand out money to panhandlers is not one with any easy answer for a preschooler. As a result, in that moment when trying to encourage empathy in my children for the homeless, and thankfulness for what we have, it can feel rather hypocritical to then always drive past without doing anything to help. To counter that — even though my wife and I privately do support organizations that help the homeless — it is important to us that we are making it a point of inviting my son to join us in serving the poor in hands-on ways.
We finally got the chance last weekend when we and some friends volunteered to help with “3 O’Clock People,” a weekly meal our church serves to the homeless and poverty stricken in our community. Tucker stood behind the food tables next to me, and was responsible for dispensing baked goods and special dessert treats (I was on garlic bread duty). This was a particularly special time for Tucker because my parents were visiting that weekend, and it was something they joined us in doing. I hope it helps set an idea in his mind that helping others is something we can all do, together. He got another chance this week, when my wife took him to join a group of friends at a local organization called Northwest Children’s Outreach, that specifically puts together care packages for children — whether in the foster care system or simply in a crisis situation — so that they will have necessities like diapers, formula, clothing and shoes, but also toys and books to make them smile. Tucker had a great time choosing just the right toys and books for each child. These kinds of hands-on opportunities are a wonderful, tangible way for him to feel like he was able to help those less fortunate than us.
“Dada, that lady is homeless, right?” Tucker had asked, pointing to Jane.
“Yes, she is,” I replied.
“Just like the people I gave bagels and cookies to?”
“I thought so.” The light changes, and as we drive past Jane she waves, and Tucker waves back. “Dada?”
“When can we go help more people?”
I love his heart. So, so much.
Thank you Lord for giving me such an inspiring responsibility, in getting to be his Dada.