Parents and teachers are talking to kids about the homelessness they witness (2024)


In some cities, homelessness has become a much more visible problem. That's left some parents and teachers trying to figure out how to talk to children about the people they see living on the streets, as Katia Riddle reports from Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For third graders at the Cathedral School, witnessing homelessness is part of daily life.

INGRID TRACHTENBARG: I want you to think about your own journeys into school today.

RIDDLE: Teacher Ingrid Trachtenbarg is talking to her students on a recent morning.

TRACHTENBARG: Did you witness anyone sleeping outside?

RIDDLE: Every child raises their hand. This private Catholic school is downtown. Unsheltered people wander by the playground regularly. Sometimes they're distressed and in crisis. Trachtenbarg encourages candor in these conversations. Here's her student Florence Bauer.

FLORENCE BAUER: On my way home, I go under the bridge. And under the bridge, there's this, like, ginormous homeless camp, and there's, like, a bunch of tents and things. When you walk up to those people, they - like, you don't know them, and sometimes they can be, like, scarier than other people.

TRACHTENBARG: So we're called, as Catholics, to look at those who are poor as the same as each and every one of us. And like Flo said, that's kind of scary, right?

RIDDLE: Trachtenbarg says when her students feel safe and heard, they can develop empathy, even for people who might scare them.

TRACHTENBARG: So let's think - let's pivot to, what can we do? What are we called to do as Catholics and, really, as good people?

SIMON BURKE: You should help them...

RIDDLE: That was student Simon Burke.

SIMON: ...Because you don't need more stuff. They actually need stuff because they don't even have a roof over their head.

RIDDLE: Trachtenbarg also tries to show her students how to take initiative on this issue.

TRACHTENBARG: And then we'll make our way to the table to start making our sack lunches.

RIDDLE: After their discussion, the class prepares food for homeless people. The Blanchet House is a few miles away. The class will donate their sandwiches here to help feed people like Vanessa Snick.

VANESSA SNICK: Being homeless is hard enough because it takes you out of the real world.

RIDDLE: Snick is eating lunch at the Blanchet House on a recent day, holding her small dog on her lap. She's been homeless for nine years. She suggests the most important thing to remember when talking about and to homeless people - they're human.

SNICK: Sometimes I don't feel like a part of society. People have to understand that we're not here by choice, you know? And it's hard to get off the street.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: And then we've got pants on one side and some shirts and then a few socks and gloves.

RIDDLE: A volunteer helps people find clothing in another part of Blanchet House. Zale Leer picks some pants off the rack.

ZALE LEER: Rain pants. I needed those.

RIDDLE: Lehr has been on the street for close to a decade. Fundamentally, he wants the same things everyone else does.

LEER: I think people are actually just looking for, like, regularity - like, not being treated differently.

RIDDLE: Eye contact, a nod, a smile. Eighteen-year-old Brooke Plasse is a volunteer at Blanchet House. She remembers her first shift here.

BROOKE PLASSE: I just came home, and I felt like I was just so happy to have gone. It made me really - it was just - it filled me with joy, honestly.

RIDDLE: She wasn't always as comfortable around homeless people as she is now. She remembers a different experience from when she was much younger.

B PLASSE: I think I said to my mom - I was like, why is that man sitting there? Like, where's his house? Then I was really confused.

RIDDLE: Brooke's mom, Rachel Plasse, recalls a conversation with her young daughter about a homeless person, asking them to give money.

RACHEL PLASSE: I remember her debating and wondering why I wasn't.

RIDDLE: She didn't have an immediate answer.

R PLASSE: You know, they're looking for something. It says - they have a sign. It looks like they have a legitimate need. Why not give the money that way?

BETSY BROWN BRAUN: I say to parents more often than you could imagine in my sessions, do you love your child enough to allow them to be unhappy?

RIDDLE: Therapist Betsy Brown Braun wrote a parenting book called "Just Tell Me What To Say." Parents and teachers often want to shield their children from witnessing tragedy and hardship. But in cities like Portland, with the issue of homelessness, that's impossible. Braun says it's better to be direct.

BRAUN: Because your child learns that Mommy's going to answer my question. She's going to be honest. There's no question that's too bad to ask.

RIDDLE: A question like, how could someone become homeless? That's one Rachel Plasse had to field.

R PLASSE: You know, I would try to explain that circ*mstances led them there.

RIDDLE: Plasse says there are no clear answers. Still, she wouldn't have her kids unsee this problem.

R PLASSE: Because they shouldn't, you know, live in a space where they just think everything is wonderful and these problems aren't out there.

RIDDLE: Her daughter, Brooke Plasse, is now a senior in high school. The family started volunteering together to help homeless people. Now Brooke does it by herself.

B PLASSE: And I really - I feel inspired, you know, that - to make more of a difference because now I'm aware. I think without awareness, there's no change.

RIDDLE: She's become friendly with a number of the unhoused people she sees regularly.

B PLASSE: They have so much to tell me and have had such rich lives, and, like, we should listen. I don't think we listen enough.

RIDDLE: Of course, listening is not going to solve the deep structural problems around homelessness. But it's a start for these kids who will someday be the adults responsible for solutions.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Parents and teachers are talking to kids about the homelessness they witness (2024)


How to explain homelessness to children? ›

Explain that being homeless means that one does not have a place to call home. It might be for a day or two or for many weeks or months. Talk about how difficult it is. Help students understand that being homeless doesn't mean that someone has done something wrong.

How does homelessness affect children psychologically? ›

Homeless children are significantly more likely than the general population, or comparison children in stable housing, to have delayed development,6 learning difficulties,7 and higher rates of mental health problems (behavioural problems such as sleep disturbance, eating problems, aggression, and overactivity, and ...

How does homelessness affect children's learning? ›

Homelessness has far-reaching effects on a child's ability to learn. The stress of being homeless can interfere with a child's ability to focus at school and keep up with their studies. Homeless children also tend to miss a lot of school, which can lead to them falling behind and not reaching their full potential.

What do you think the affects would be for a child who was homeless? ›

homelessness. Emotional and Behavioral Development: Homeless children are confronted with stressful and traumatic events that they often are too young to understand, leading to severe emotional distress. Homeless children experience stress through constant changes, which accumulate with time.

How to talk to middle schoolers about homelessness? ›

Try to steer your conversation towards empathy and action; this way, your child's understanding of homelessness is accompanied by a desire to help and support those in need. Feel free to personalize each response so that it feels natural and personal to you. As children grow, their curiosity naturally grows with them.

What are the feelings of a homeless child? ›

Some children experience anxiety because they do not have a home and a child might feel embarrassed with a friend, and might not feel confident sharing with peers. Also, some homeless children feel depression because their families are going through a crisis that perhaps they have not encountered.

Is being homeless as a child traumatic? ›

Many of these families and children have experienced trauma prior to becoming homeless, and homelessness can exacerbate the consequences of trauma or retraumatize a child, resulting in a cycle that is tragically damaging and costly to both individuals and communities.

What mental health issues cause homelessness? ›

What are the most common types of mental illness among people experiencing homelessness? Affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and substance abuse disorders are among the most common types of mental illness in the homeless population.

What type of trauma is homelessness? ›

Thirdly, homelessness itself can be considered a trauma in multiple ways. Often the loss of a home together with loss of family connections and social roles can be traumatic. This is because ”like other traumas, becoming homeless frequently renders people unable to control their daily lives”.

Why is homelessness bad for children? ›

Effects of Homelessness on Children's Health and Wellness

Children experiencing homelessness have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems of children who have homes.

How does moving frequently affect a child? ›

Frequent moves take a toll on children's social-emotional well-being. At all ages, each additional move is associated with small declines in social skills and emotional and behav- ioral problems. Although the effects are small, these deficits can accumulate, leaving multiple movers at greater risk.

What percentage of US students are homeless? ›

From 2017 to 2019, roughly 4.1% to 4.3% of students experienced homelessness during the school year. After falling to less than 3.7% during the depths of the pandemic, it is now back to 4.1%. This increase is especially striking given the ongoing, overall decline in student enrollment.

What is the root cause of youth homelessness? ›

What Causes Youth Homelessness? Youth homelessness is often rooted in family conflict. Other contributing factors include economic circ*mstances like poverty and housing insecurity, racial disparities, and mental health and substance use disorders.

What five cities do the most homeless people live in? ›

Miami checks in at No. 19
RankCityRate of Homelessness (per 1,000 people)
1New York City, NY10.6
2Los Angeles, CA18.7
3Seattle, WA18.9
4San Diego, CA7.4
21 more rows
Apr 9, 2024

What are the reasons why a family or child may become homeless? ›

Poverty and the lack of affordable housing are the principal causes of family homelessness, as well as lack of a living wage for many families. As a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment, many families struggle to get medical care, food, and housing.

What is the definition of homelessness in children? ›

The term “homeless children and youths”– (A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 103(a)(1)); and.

What is homelessness in simple words? ›

The federal government defines "homelessness" as a condition in which an individual or family lacks a fixed, regular, nighttime residence; resides in a public or private residence that is not designed or intended to be a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; lives in a supervised shelter designated to ...

How do you explain poverty to a child? ›

The best way to explain poverty to kids is to keep it simple and make it clear. For example, try saying, 'Poverty is about not having enough money to meet basic needs like food to eat, clothing to wear, and a house to live in. '

What is the short summary of homeless? ›

homelessness, the state of having no home or permanent place of residence. Few social problems are as visible as the plight of homeless people.


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