What do you tell your kids?

We rolled down 45th Street today over I-5, pulled into the left-turn lane to head North and waited. From the backseat, Baby Z’s three year-old voice piped up with one of those “why” questions you hear from three year-old all the time. This one ended up being a bit tough, though.

“Daddy, what bus is that man waiting for? Where is he going?”

Now, I got to give it to Baby Z that he understands bus stops sufficiently to know that someone sitting in one ought to be going somewhere. Unfortunately, in this case, the man was going nowhere. Regarding myself as a progressive parent who refuses to shelter his child from uncomfortable truths, I took my best shot at it.

homeless in the rain - Seattle“That man isn’t going anywhere. He doesn’t have a home, so he stays in the bus stop and the grass nearby.”

“Why doesn’t he have a home?”

Yeah, OK, we’re going there. “He doesn’t have a home because he can’t work, or doesn’t want to work. And probably because he drinks too much alcohol.”

“What?!” I could hear the sense of amazement and perhaps a tinge of delight at uncovering some new, unexpected fact: people could not work because they drank too much alcohol? He knows I drink alcohol, and that I enjoy that it makes me “dizzy”. I’ll dip my finger in whatever I’m drinking and let him have a taste, which he enjoys. How could this cause someone to not go to work?

I took my best shot at explaining how some people liked alcohol too much, and drank so much of it that they couldn’t work and that meant that they might not be able to have a home.

“Where do they sleep?”

“Well, maybe in a tent, there by the highway.”

“He doesn’t have a home because he is camping all the time!”

Mmmmm…OK, causality may be a bit muddled, but he’s tracking the basic plot.

Long conversation follows about why he doesn’t have a home, the people who try to help him, etc. All of which left me with the clear sense that we haven’t heard the last of this particular conversation.

Parents of Wallingford: what do you do when your kids ask about the homeless people living in camps by the highway? And what do you say when they ask why someone broke the windows on your car (which has happened to our friends Sarah and Terry, up by 44th and 4th Ave NE twice in the past two weeks)?

(Photo by Romi Chiorean. Taken in Seattle, not in Wallingford.)

  1. Linda said,

    As a family, we’ve visited Nickelsville, listened in on their democratic meetings, and talked to homeless people who are trying hard to live independent, respect-filled (and alcohol and drug-free) lives while they are homeless. We’ve gone to fund-raising pancake breakfasts (yum) at Keystone church, and we’ve supported “Nickelodeons” pressing the mayor and city/county councils for permanent shelters for an independent encampment. We’ve told our daughter about how Pres. Reagan closed many mental health facilities in the 1980s, pushing some folks out onto the streets. We talk to her about how our country chooses to spend more money on wars and less money on social services for everyone, including the homeless. We often give a dollar to the folks on the crossroads. And we buy Real Change weekly.

    Mon, April 30 at 7:44 am
  2. Kotzebue said,

    As my daughter was growing up just off of 45th and Stone and she would see the men and women on the streets and ask who they were–I would tell her that the majority of them were people whose lives had gone out of control. I would remind her that she was to treat them with compassion and not scorn because many of them were no longer able to take care of themselves and that there was someone who probably still cared for them. I never told them the reason they were homeless was because they didn’t want to work or were too drunk to work. Sorry Wally, but your answer to your child was one of the reasons that we left Wallingford..too many people of means who believe that all of the problems of the street people would be solved if these lazy people would just sober up and “get a job.” Instead of calling them lazy drunks, how about telling your child that too many of them are on the streets not because of alcohol, but because they couldn’t get the help that they needed….

    Mon, April 30 at 8:48 am
  3. Eric said,

    For car window smashing, it’s happened a couple times to me as well, each time nothing stolen. Pure destructiveness. I’ve been told it’s a gang initiation thing, but I don’t really know. I tell my kids that it’s testosterone at work, and then ask them to never hit puberty.

    As for the homeless population, I try to stress to my kids that there’s a different story behind each person ending up out there, that they each need different kinds of help, and that there’s no easy answers. It’s important for the kids to feel empathy and to realize how lucky they are to not be born into that life. When the kids get older I plan to volunteer with them at familyworks, to introduce them to the glamorous life of social work.

    The best movie I’ve seen on the depth and breadth of homelessness is “dark days”, about a homeless encampment in the New York city subway tunnel.

    Mon, April 30 at 9:15 am
  4. Wallyhood said,

    @Kotzebue: you must have read some alternate reality version of my post in which the words or sentiment “lazy drunks” appeared. My mouth only likes the taste of my own words, thanks.

    Mon, April 30 at 9:30 am
  5. Michael H. said,

    Like Kotzebue, I think a more compassionate answer is better for a child. Many of the homeless are mentally ill, and that is why they can’t work, don’t work, or self-medicate by drinking too much alcohol.

    Mon, April 30 at 9:36 am
  6. hayduke said,

    What will I tell my kid about the homeless?

    That some of them don’t want to be, and some of them choose to be.

    Mon, April 30 at 9:44 am
  7. Jon said,

    Wallyhood is making an honest attempt to address a serious issue…..why the rebuke? Truth is that there is no easy answer, but a multitude of directions from which to address the issue. Every person is a unique individual, and their reasons for being on the street are just as unique. Some of them are covered above. The thing is that most of the people on the street do not chose to be there. The antecedents to their circumstances often root from childhood. I would maintain that any good kindergarten teacher can predict which of the children in her class could be considered “at risk”. Look at the environment they grow up in and gauge the opportunities they are likely to have in life. If the parents drink to excess or use controlled substances, what is the likelihood that the children will repeat what is often a family pattern? I am fortunate that I grew up in a loving, stable family. At the same time I sometimes wonder how I would have handled the adversity that many of the people who live on the streets have had to endure. When I see the men and women on the corner, I generally see them through compassionate eyes, but that does not mean that I can ignore illegal behavior from them or anyone else. As to what to tell your children, I think we all just do the best we can with the information we have….and isn’t that the point of having a forum like this? By the way, I almost never give money to the people with signs…..unless it is clear that they are obviously disabled. There are people who are not homeless who have been on the corner of 45th and I-5 for many, many years.

    Mon, April 30 at 10:31 am
  8. Kotzebue said,

    Wally, I suppose it’s a matter of perspective. I see from you “how some people liked alcohol too much, and drank so much of it that they couldn’t work and that meant that they might not be able to have a home” and from my perspective, I see an adult telling their child that someone has made the choice of being drunk and homeless. You’re right..you didn’t use the word “lazy drunks” but perhaps becuase I’m not three years old, I can understand your contempt for those on the street by your choice of words. I am concerned by the callous attitude you present to your child about those whose life cirumstances have placed them on the streets.

    Mon, April 30 at 10:39 am
  9. DOUG. said,

    A 2007 study showed that 44% of American homeless have some sort of job. To say a homeless person “can’t work, or doesn’t want to work” is overly simplistic and often untrue.

    Mon, April 30 at 10:54 am
  10. Donn said,

    Kotzebue, you said you left Wallingford because of this – where does one go, to find a community where that article would represent a relatively callous point of view?

    Not that I agree with you on it – the way I read it, you insist on adding things to the article, first literally and then when taken to task for that you claim to find these things by reading between the lines to reinforce your rather twisted perspective. There are times when we benefit from greater compassion and understanding, and ideally we can learn that from each other, but this kind of stuff poisons the well more than it helps anyone. But I’m mainly interested in the enlightened neighborhood you left us for.

    Mon, April 30 at 12:02 pm
  11. Wallyhood said,

    @Kotzebue: again, there’s no “contempt” or “callousness” anywhere in anything I’m saying. Please re-read all my past posts on the homeless issues to get a better sense of my position here (for example, see my comments here: http://www.wallyhood.org/2009/10/nickelsville-coming-wallingford/)

    It’s difficult to explain to a 3 year old why someone might end up as an alcoholic, but I try. To pretend that alcohol is unrelated to their condition is a lie. I appreciate that a set of circumstances that nobody would choose, many of which were out of the control of those it impacted, led to these people being homeless. Saying that alcoholism is involved doesn’t blame them, but it is a relevant fact.

    It’s not coincidental that people with warm, loving families and stable breadwinners as parents tend to end up homeless less often than people who are, by no choice of their own, born into families that lack those characteristics. Getting into a discussion about whose fault it is is kind of pointless, since it rapidly devolves into “free will” vs “determinism” philosophical ratholes.

    Thank you for sharing your strong feelings on this, though. That was the point of this post.

    Mon, April 30 at 12:12 pm
  12. Colleen said,

    Agree with Kotzebue, telling your kid that homeless people are homeless because they “probably drink too much” absolutely sends the wrong message.

    And seems outrageous given that you told them that you like alcohol “because it makes you dizzy” and that you give them (REALLY?! A *3* year old?!) alcohol “every time you have some”.

    re: your last comment, “it’s difficult to explain.. why someone might end up as an alcoholic”, you didn’t say that, you said that being an alcoholic made them homeless (i.e. the other direction).

    Btw, a big reason people end up alcoholics is because like drink to “feel dizzy” and get away from their problems.

    Mon, April 30 at 12:45 pm
  13. Donn said,

    I see that the larger principles are getting some attention here – homelessness, alcoholism, free will vs. determinism … But we’re also exposed to some actual, tangible individuals, some of us more than others, and I’m sure that raises some different concerns for parents that have less to do with addressing the broader social ills. Suppose your daughter doesn’t want to walk with you across the freeway on N 50th because the ramp crowd is scary? Do you reinforce that, because it could indeed pose some risks – but knowing that she may grow up to fear desperately poor people? Or is it an opportunity to take her down there and hang out with them once in a while, so she can learn that they’re people just like us? Do you teach her to never give them money, because they use the money to buy fortified liquor and then sleep it off on your neighbors’ steps? I’m sure glad I’m not a parent (and I’m sure others are glad too!)

    Mon, April 30 at 12:54 pm
  14. Shawn said,

    This is a big topic of conversation at our house, since I have a 6 and 3 year old, and live just south of 50th where we see homeless people all the time.

    At this point, we usually say that people are homeless for various reasons (we talk about some people having mental illness, and liken it to having a cold or flu and their brain doesn’t work right, like our bodies when we feel sick), and some people just don’t want to work. You can’t make a judgment unless you know that person and their reasons. And yes, sometimes we say that people choose to drink too much. We see a lot of drunk people on 50th.

    We also teach our kids that the best way to help these people is to give our money and time to organizations that help. We give at our church, donate food to Family Works, and participate in fundraisers/activities that help those less fortunate. When we’re grocery shopping, I’ll have my kids choose something to give to people who don’t have enough to eat.

    And, right or wrong, we teach our kids not to give money to people directly. As neighbors affected by the Alcohol Impact Zone (or whatever its called – see post last week), I see firsthand the affect of drinking in our neighborhood.

    Finally, as appropriate, we introduce our kids to people in the neighborhood who are either homeless, or down on their luck. Treating these people with respect and giving them (their real) names has been effective for our kids. Now when we’re driving down 45th, my daughter will see people and say ‘hey! there’s so and so. I wonder how he’s doing.’

    Even though its difficult, I’m glad that we live in a neighborhood where my kids are faced with the realities of life – both good and bad.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:00 pm
  15. Donn said,

    Colleen, you and Kotzebue need to come up with an explanation for kids, that covers the guys at the freeway bus stop and fits on a small card, and post it here. If it’s easy to pick away at something and protest that it isn’t a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, it must be easy enough to come up with an explanation that is, and that was the question.

    Don’t omit important factors, and alcohol is certainly a factor. Make sure that your explanation accounts for why other people who are sometimes without employment, or also drink alcohol, are not homeless, and accounts for why many homeless people are not beggars, etc. It has to be comprehensible to a 3 year old. It has to be better than `their lives are out of control’ – that doesn’t even mean anything to me. We’ll help, but you have to do it.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:06 pm
  16. Ryan said,

    Hmm, I’m not sure “well son that dude that we just saw sitting on a bench probably lives there because he drank too much alcohol” fits my definition of progressive parenting. Then again I’m not dipping my finger in my booze that make me dizzy to give my kid a taste either so I could just be too square to get this one.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:12 pm
  17. Sam said,

    For what it’s worth, Wally, I think I would have explained it in exactly the same way. I think a 3-year old needs to know enough to be cautious of homeless people. He can learn more bit-by-bit as he gets older, and judge for himself later on. He doesn’t have to have the full story and every single detail now. People, remember, he’s 3. Don’t lose sight of that.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:32 pm
  18. Beth said,

    I have told my kids that people beg and are homeless for a wide variety of reasons. I have told them that drug and alcohol abuse often leads to a spiral that prevents someone from supporting themselves or being supported by family and friends. I say that untreated mental illness also leads to the same and that homelessness often exacerbates mental illness which often leads to more drug and alcohol abuse. I also say that I do not give money to people on the street as I do not feel it is a wise way to help people in need. I often fill out my voting sheets with my kids and talk about how we make decisions to pay taxes to support social services to support the needy. I talk with them about the need for universal heath care. But what I have never told them is that I was homeless or in poverty (when not homeless) much of my youth with a parent who suffered from mental illness and drug abuse. It was a world of violence and drugs behind what appeared to be hanging in the sun, smoking pot and being hippies. In my teens, I viewed the adults around me as lazy drug addicts who brought much of their woe on themselves. But I left that world and never looked by at age 17. Now years later as a adult, I strive to leave that teen anger behind and try to find empathy and compassion. I mention this because really you don’t know where someone else came from and what their life experiences were just by looking at them, seeing where they live (Wallingford), or reading their post on Wallyhood.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:37 pm
  19. Dan said,

    Although you may have not wanted or intended this entry to come off as prejudice and generalizing, you’re probably going to have a lot of readers see it that way (which is already becoming clear). From a reader’s perspective it seems that you are saying homeless = worthless alcoholic and really it doesn’t matter the words you use, it’s definitely implied. If that’s how you wish to teach your child about homelessness that’s your choice and I have no right to tell you otherwise, but perhaps you could learn a bit more yourself and then be more selective when you choose your words.

    I’ve worked at shelters, interacted with the homeless, and currently work with people who are at times on the threshold of keeping and loosing their housing and although some do have issues with substances, most of them are victims of unfortunate life situations and mental health concerns. Maybe the best answer for your kid is to educate them and the in turn yourself through exposure and giving back. Try taking your child to a foodbank once a month (you’d be suprised at how many people you see in Khakis and button-downs that need to use the foodbank)??

    I’m not going to say that you’re wrong in that some people who are homeless have substance abuse issues, many do. But what we have to be cautious of is how we paint the picture, especially to young people/kids. What you say to your child now is going to shape how they see and interact with the world and I am seeing too much ‘dissmissing’ and not enough trying to understand

    I’d also like to say that claiming the ‘wholesome family’ angle is a line of BS. Let’s also take a look at how many alchoholics exist in these ‘warm,’ ‘loving,’ families with ‘stable breadwinners.’ Let’s look at how often unreported domestic violence takes place in these families. Or chastising for being gay. Or rape by a family member. Or 10000 other reasons that people choose to abandon their lives in these seemingly perfect families. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not a root cause of an issue. I get what you’re saying, but once again, your statement came off like you have a very poor view of lower class/homeless people and that they are a lower breed of person. Maybe it was just your choice of wording and if we talked in person I would get a different vibe from you.

    Mon, April 30 at 1:43 pm
  20. Dan said,

    Also, you can just tell a 3 year old that they don’t have a home because they don’t have money. That’s what causes homelessness, right? Not having money? And the answer to the follow up ‘why?’ can be as easy as they’re not able to find a job right now.

    I’m all for not lying to kids about real life situations and do think that slowly educating them is important, but that doesn’t mean that we have to burden them with lifes issues straight out the womb either. Let kids be kids and not worry about these things at least for a while….

    Mon, April 30 at 2:05 pm
  21. walkinroun said,

    You have probably seen my brother. He is often sitting, hunched over and deeply intoxicated on the bench in the little park across the street from the place where he used to live. Sometimes when it is raining he slumps on the bench at the covered bus stop right in front. He can’t stay away from West Seattle for long. Eventually he finds his way back. He knows the landscape, the streets, the people. He feels safer there. He knows who might spare some change. Who might be drinking and want some company. Who might give him a sandwich. Who might spare a kind word or two.

    The Starbucks might let him sit for a while and charge up his little cell phone, maybe give him some hot water free for his tea or instant coffee from his backpack. When his minutes run out the Thriftway might let him use their floor phone as long as he hasn’t been in the night before yelling and drunk. When he has food stamps he “shops” there: shrimp and salad and sandwiches. When he can keep his dentures in he might even eat a little meat. But his food of choice is beer.

    Though nearly six feet tall, he only weighs about 130 pounds. His teeth are gone and his liver is bad. His body is misshapen from old bouts with necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating disease. He is stiff, arthritic, and angular from old accidents and the ravages of a forty-five year addiction to drugs and alcohol. His skin is vandalized by severe psoriasis. His glasses are thick and he is virtually blind without them. And yet, somehow, there is something boyish and heart wrenchingly innocent about him. Something perpetually 14. Something stuck on never grown up.

    Our childhood was spent in a comfortable, friendly beachside neighborhood not too far from the little park he inhabits now, in the same area where our folks and their folks and their folks’ folks once lived. Our parents tried to have children for years before D was born. He was a sizeable but clearly agitated and squalling baby boy. Our mother often speculated that my brother had been damaged by her three long days in labor. D- never really did calm down.

    In spite of all the truly good stuff our world provided, my brother was troubled: he seemed perpetually upset, irritated and unhappy, a failing student and an impulsive risk taker. If there was a wasp nest nearby you could count on D- finding a long pointy stick and poking it. He seared ants with glasses, threw long legged spiders on girls, swung garter snakes through the air and sat in stony silence when the teacher used him as a bad example. But he also tried to save baby robins, ran home in pitched excitement at catching a Silver off Colman’s dock, and listened in rapt silence when Dad read Robinson Crusoe or The Jungle Books. He was skinny, athletic and surprisingly strong.

    D- reached his teens in the sixties and soon discovered drugs: weed, LSD, crank, alcohol and heroin. It was a time when kids were rebelling, dropping out, and turning on. For my brother, and many others, the drugs quickly became serious. Some kids died. Some were institutionalized. Some disappeared into that long slow death. D- became unruly, loud, yelling, strange, mean. He dropped out of high school and floated around, sometimes working odd jobs, fishing in Alaska, and for a while, welding at the shipyards. But his addictions eventually undermined him.

    Our folks were bewildered: their firstborn, their boy, seemed wired way beyond their reach, as if his nerve endings were permanently exposed. No one, no expert or therapist or family counselor or minister or family member, knew how to help him or them. Our folks spent much of their life reacting to D-, one way or another. They pleaded with him and they pleaded for professional intervention, but as long as he was not deemed a danger to himself or others, the system shrugged.

    For several years during the 70’s he drank. Then the blackouts and delirium tremens frightened him enough to switch to crank. D- eventually settled on heroin, and spent most of the last thirty years shooting or skin popping it or using its taming cousin, methadone. He continued to work odd jobs, usually in the neighborhood: yardwork, hauling, and other laborious activity. Overall, our folks kept him relatively safe, fed, clothed, sheltered and cared for until they died within a year and a half of one another, ten years ago. They loved him unconditionally and could not turn him out to the street.

    After our folks died I tried my best to find a solution for D-. I bought him a camper and paid for an RV spot in south Seattle until he sold it. I arranged for various drug treatment interventions, including a trip to a Bible based program in North Carolina. But D- could not give up the dope, and eventually he found himself homeless and holding a sign under the freeway near Burien. It was there he nearly died. A police officer stopped and checked on him when he was lying inert, ravaged by necrotizing fasciitis from skin-popping heroin. The officer called 911 and D- spent about three months in the burn unit of Harborview undergoing various grafts and procedures to reconstruct his arm and shoulder. After a few rugged months he got back on methadone and his life stabilized.

    For nearly six years, while on methadone maintenance, he kept his austere concrete brick-walled apartment in low income housing, close by his childhood home. He hated “the done” for its deep do-nothingness, the plodding boredom of the heavy-lidded slow-motion unlivingness of it, and the cumulative effects of increasing body feminization, bone pain and fogginess it engendered. But the done kept him safe. He got up every day, shockingly early, took the bus to somewhere in Sodo and got his done dose. Sometimes he got a sweet roll and coffee, or a few groceries on the way back to his place, his home. He had a view of the mountains, a TV to watch, a phone, and the National Geographic came every month. He had plants and a goldfish and stuff on the wall. And most people in the complex seemed to like him. Old neighbors and friends of the folks seemed to feel protective of him. At his best he was pleasant, polite and friendly.

    Every few days for all those years I called him from across the country. Hey D-, how you doing? Ah, I’m okay, Sis, I wish I woulda done more with my life…

    Then, almost two years ago, he went off the done. He had been taking progressively smaller doses and convinced himself he could live a drug free life. I begged him not to. I urged him to work through a drug counselor or someone or some agency or something. I urged him to get involved in a church or surround himself with healthy people before he tried something like this. My urging was just noise. He went off the done and within days he was a stranger, cold and cruel and accusatory. He stopped talking to me, hanging up when I called. Old childhood cruelties resurfaced. I was deeply hurt and deeply worried.

    He kept talking to my cousin. It was her sister who finally told me that D- was drinking “just a few beers to sleep at night”. But I knew what his drinking meant. Nothing with D- was “just a few”. Drinking is like heroin to my brother. And its dangers, though different, are no better: he would be homeless and dead, just like he had been homeless and virtually dead from heroin some seven years earlier.

    It took a year of persistent calling before D- really talked to me again. And by then he was being evicted.

    The drinking changed his behavior from zoned out to unpredictable, expansive and sometimes wild. Where he used to sleep all day or done doze in front of the TV, he now hosted impromptu parties. And, of course, the gang showed up. His long residency and vulnerability protected him for a while, but when management changed, tolerance for his behavior evaporated. He always paid his rent, but with the peculiar generosity and carelessness of the deeply addicted he opened his apartment to others like him whose housing options had run their course. The foot traffic and noise and general rowdiness of a clump of impaired folks landed him outside and homeless himself.

    D- stumbles between sobering centers, detox, recovery services, and the street. He begs for money and food, sleeps in alleys and parks, forgets where he is and what he has done, and focuses only on the next beer.

    By now he knows most all the homeless resources. They are all downtown and he is a little bit afraid of downtown. Trying to negotiate his way through the maze of other addicts, mentally ill, down on their luck homeless and hustlers, especially while searching for beer, proves confusing, scary, lonely. There are no homeless shelters or food programs in West Seattle, but he prefers taking his chances sleeping outside there.

    I don’t think D- knows what to do or where to go or how to live in this fast paced complicated world. Sobriety unmasks a deep sadness with squandered living. It seems to dissolve his humor and affection, rendering him religiously intolerant and emotionally rigid – one of those tragic ironies. Then, in spite of his best intentions, in spite of going through detox repeatedly, in spite of being offered recovery programs, inpatient services, clean and sober housing, D- ends up back on the street, driven by a gnawing agitation and an insatiable thirst. When he secures his booze, he expresses a roguish playfulness. Things are funny. He lapses into nostalgia and becomes enveloped in some tangled mist of memories and wishfulness and numbing down. He calls everyone his friend and curls inward against the cold.

    I don’t know where D- is right now. I don’t know if he is alive or hurt or laughing uncontrollably somewhere. He is like someone lost in the ocean. You search and see him and try to get there and he is gone, only to surface again some other time, some other place. Whenever I think I will get That Call, the one where someone asks if you are who you are, he pops up with a strangely cheerful call. He will say he is all right, not to worry, but then you learn he has been pepper-sprayed by some teenagers or booted out of the Thriftway for some drunken boorish behavior or he has rolled down a hill and hurt his foot and couldn’t get out of the gully for a couple of days.

    There have been long stretches of time in my life when I have been furious with my brother: mad that he wouldn’t help himself, mad that he hurt my folks, mad that he didn’t seem to have the backbone to manage his life. I guess I have come to see him now as someone with an incurable, devastating illness, someone who can no more cure himself than if he had epilepsy or diabetes or cancer or schizophrenia. I understand my folks better now too, why they harbored him. They did not want him to die. I don’t either. I just don’t know how to keep him safe and alive. I cringe when I hear people scorn and rail against “homeless drunks”. Addiction is such an ugly disease.

    If you happen to see my brother, will you ask him to call me? Will you tell him I would like to know he is all right?

    Mon, April 30 at 2:06 pm
  22. chrisw said,

    When I was little, they told me that homeless people were really poor, and that we were blessed Dad was a penny pincher. But at church I learned that god rewards good people, so I assumed the pour were bad. A terrible lesson. So sayeth the (now) atheist.

    Mon, April 30 at 2:08 pm
  23. Donn said,

    I sure bet you would get a different vibe in person, and for that matter you would get a different vibe if you weren’t so eager to impute thoughts like `lower breed of person’ to someone. I say again, people like you who are so quick to assume ignorance and intolerance based on some ambiguous verbiage are really part of the problem, by putting us all on the wrong side of some kind of `us vs. them’ divide. I don’t know a whole lot about these people and yet like anyone I have my own ideas, but I’m able to be influenced a little by someone like Shawn above who’s willing to talk about his own ideas of a humane approach to it. If you want to do any good here, you have to do better than scold us for not being social workers.

    Note that the subject of the explanation was not at a shelter or foodbank, and the omission of various facets of homelessness and poverty from the explanation might have had more to do with economy of expression than ignorance.

    Mon, April 30 at 2:13 pm
  24. jro said,

    This is a challenging topic, but I mostly take umbrage with everyone’s judgmental disposition of how to explain homelessness to your child. Our children look to us as their parents to explain the world to them in terms they can understand, so we all have a tough job in that respect. But seriously, everyone needs to chill.

    I didn’t read any generalization or prejudicial comments in Wally’s entry that don’t reflect what I already hear people saying throughout the neighborhood. Alcoholism, drug addiction, criminal activity, homelessness…they’re not always correlated with each other, but don’t kid yourself. If you had to wager if the guy panhandling on the corner was going to use any money from the kindness of strangers for drugs/alcohol, where would you place your bet? I can tell you exactly how I would expect my neighbors to wager, and I’m pretty sure that’s a predominant feeling throughout Wallingford.

    But let’s back off the judgmental assessments about what is appropriate for each of our children. Want to judge someone’s parenting? Start at home.

    Mon, April 30 at 2:19 pm
  25. clea said,

    I think Wally’s comments to a 3 year old were perfectly appropriate. I continue to be surprised by how much people in Wallingford (and Seattle in general) will bend over backwards to onlyl feed the problem. Most of the comments here show that. FACT: Most of the homeless have addiction to alcohol or drugs and use your dollar or spare change to buy alcohol and drugs – that is why they are poor….. Very few are homeless who simply don’t have a job. It is a complicated problem, even more so with mental illnesses in the homeless, but I don’t think ignoring the vast majority who are addicts and talking about the problem in terms of how we must help them is right. Wally, I would tell my kid the same thing you did….

    Mon, April 30 at 2:24 pm
  26. Dan said,

    I admit that I was quick to jump on this and probably didn’t think about my words just like I’m expecting others to do, I apologize. I do get really frustrated by this issue though because people tend (from my experiences) to jump to the easiest conclusion, especially on this issue. I do want to offer a ‘but’ here though, that there is a bit of big assumptions occurring in both the origninal post and some of the responses.

    I’m not a social worker, just someone with a fair amount of exposure. I know that not everyone sees things the way I do and I don’t expect that, but when someone jumps on the idea that being in what we would easily seen as a ‘happy family’ means that social ills aren’t there just as they are with people who are homeless is really frustrating.

    Last thing, I replied based on how I interpreted both the original post and responses and really don’t think it’s fair to tell me that my perception of what’s written isn’t valid. I’m pretty sure the reason there are response boxes on here is to start a dialog and get people thinking, which this topic is doing. Are we all responding in the best way, no. But that’s part of the problem with the internet, it’s easy to post and walk away.

    Mon, April 30 at 2:31 pm
  27. Dan said,

    I guess the only message I’m asking that people try to get accross when talking about alcoholism and homelessness is that it is not an ‘if, than’ scenerio.

    Mon, April 30 at 2:33 pm
  28. Donn said,

    Fair enough, I bet many of us could go along with that based on our own experience.

    Mon, April 30 at 3:01 pm
  29. kathy said,

    I take issue with the “probably because he drank too much alcohol” statement. It is frighteningly true that over 40% of homeless people in our city actually have jobs. Many of the rest are trying to find jobs. It is difficult enough to find a job when you have a home address and phone number. Try applying for jobs and being taken seriously when you don’t.

    Anyone who has tried to rent in this area knows that (a) first month + last month + deposit can equal almost three months of rent. Saving that amount on minimum wage (even if it’s just first month + deposit) is simply not possible.

    Also – foster children “age out” of the system at 18. They lose the financial support paid to their foster families or group homes on their behalf. They lose their health benefits. Many of the homeless youth on our streets today were in the foster system. Where should they turn?

    And don’t forget when our state in its infinite wisdom decided to boot many people who cannot support themselves out of psychiatric wards and other institutions where they had food and a bed and a roof.

    Many of us (who have homes and jobs) are one more layoff away from not having jobs. It takes longer and longer to find a job. Add mental or physical illness to the mix. There are so many factors that go into becoming homeless. To simplify it all by saying “They probably drank too much alcohol” is offensive to me and to many on this thread.

    And let’s please not call them “the homeless” like they have ceased to be people.

    Mon, April 30 at 3:17 pm
  30. Sunnyside neighbor said,

    This reminds me a lot of a recent facebook discussion I was having with friends about the video ‘How to tell someone what they said sounded racist’. It is about giving feedback to someone that their words came across in a particular way—without making a statement about what that person thinks or believes. It was about trying to give that feedback compassionately so that the receiver can hear without it being an attack. Usually it fails, so Jay Smooth (the video author), said but at least one tried. It seems like the same message applies here. The feedback is that ‘probably he drinks too much alcohol’ is coming across to many (not all) as derogatory even though the writer did not intend it that way.

    Mon, April 30 at 3:35 pm
  31. Margaret said,

    Our kids got exposed to the homeless issue when their church preschool hosted Tent City. The message they got from the preschool, and from us, was that homelessness is a complex problem with a lot of causes. The main message I sent was that many people have back-up help, like family members, who will take them in if they get into personal or financial trouble. But then there are other people who don’t have this kind of support, for one reason or another, and so they must find a way to live without housing. I explained that this is why it’s important to be respectful of people, even if they seem unusual or different, because we never know any one person’s story and should always assume that people are doing the best they can with what they have.

    Mon, April 30 at 3:39 pm
  32. dan said,

    Last 2 post, A+

    Mon, April 30 at 3:42 pm
  33. Margaret said,

    Sorry, I should have said the church hosted Tent City, not the preschool itself. But the preschool and supporting homeless people were both missions of the church, and they happened on the same grounds. It was all-in-all a good experience for the kids.

    Mon, April 30 at 4:22 pm
  34. Claudia said,

    Thank you for starting the dialog. Regardless if we all agree or disagree with the initial post or subsequent responses, the conversation was started and various perspectives voiced. Thank you for this learning opportunity.

    Mon, April 30 at 4:37 pm
  35. Meg said,

    I found the homelessness discussion the most difficult of all with my daughter–harder by far than religion or sex. How do you respond to “He could come live in our house if he doesn’t have a home”? There are lots of ways to answer, but none I really felt good about. In the end I emphasized that many homeless people didn’t have good parents to take care of them and teach them how to be good and how to work, so now they need help from other people, but they couldn’t live with us because they might not know how to be good in our house. And I wished I had better examples of us helping than “we give money” which does not sound very noble to a kid (or anyone else.) Frankly my discomfort with my own lack of community action is what me feel so uncomfortable trying to explain things to her.

    Mon, April 30 at 4:56 pm
  36. Donn said,

    My advice on ‘How to tell someone what they said sounded racist’:

    Don’t bother.

    Not that you shouldn’t do what you can to further understanding, but try to find ways that work and don’t do more harm than good. Not that you can’t make a hobby of going out and kicking ass among the wrong headed, but just don’t pretend it does anyone any good.

    There are many, many people in this country who are angry and offended because they’ve been accused of racist speech, and the question you should be asking is not whether they deserved it. Is it an effective way to address the problem? No. The present issue is only different in degree. When the game is to lie in wait for someone to make a careless error of speech, it seems to turn into a kind of arms race where every day brings a new offensive word – now we can’t say “the homeless” without being accused of dehumanizing them. It doesn’t work.

    I don’t have a lot of specific advice about how to proceed instead, since I don’t know anything about it, but if our thinking appears to be wrong, help us think. Reason with us, give us statistics, anecdotes, whatever you have. Some terrific examples above. Just don’t try to police our attitudes, you don’t know what’s in our heads as well as we do and you’ll always be wrong, even when you’re right.

    Mon, April 30 at 5:33 pm
  37. Frankie said,

    Of course there are generalizations here, but the article was specifically about the panhandlers at a specific location, and you don’t have to be Dr. Phil to see that they are almost universally substance abusers.

    Now there are lots of reasons for that, and we should think, as a society about addressing the root causes of that, but we shouldn’t be haranguing someone for a reasonable and ultimately true observation about specific individuals. Those particular guys are doing more harm than good to the cause of genuine homelessness and defending THOSE individuals is actuallu contributing to the issue of real homelessness where the victims don’t have control over their initial and subsequent situations.

    Mon, April 30 at 5:39 pm
  38. jeanne said,

    There are individuals who become homeless due to substance abuse and homeless individuals who begin abusing substances due to the boredom and anxiety of being homeless and many permutations in between. Many of Seattle’s homeless families are working two or more jobs. Medical bills, high rent, inadequate coping skills, domestic abuse are just some reasons why individuals spiral into homelessness. Explaining this complexity to children is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps there is no one explanation, but many.

    Mon, April 30 at 6:55 pm
  39. jeanne said,

    An intriguing book by a homeless person that may shed light on any discussion with children: “Travels with Lizbeth” by Lars Eigner

    Mon, April 30 at 6:57 pm
  40. Donn said,

    Does the guy in the bus shelter have no alternatives? Granted that no home is going to be forthcoming, so he may continue to be homeless for the immediate future, still there are civic institutions that provide shelter for people, am I right? Sorry to admit that I don’t keep track of this, but there you go. I know there can be capacity problems, and other factors that might be a deterrent to the guy at the bus shelter, and the complexity of the answer might rule it out for the 3 year old’s story.

    Mon, April 30 at 7:15 pm
  41. Julie said,

    Donn@ #40: Deterrents for shelters (not making a judgment, just stating what might be factors) include, but are not limited to: substance abuse, mental illness and the difficulty of accessing and maintaining medications, shelters usually separate genders and do not allow pets. Any of these things can lead to someone not following the rules of a shelter and not being able to or wanting to access one. This is not an exhaustive list! And as you mentioned, capacity problems.

    Margaret @ #31 – great post. tent city has pretty strict rules about who can stay and drug and alcohol use are not tolerated. Also, I think you, and others, gave explanations that were developmentally appropriate. A 3 year old has a different grasp of what homelessness means than an older child.

    Mon, April 30 at 7:34 pm
  42. Colleen said,

    Much later than I meant to respond @Donn: I think Dan (#20) hit the nail on the head as far as what I would tell my kid. I might elaborate on the why a little, like “they might have an illness and not be able to work, or they can’t find a job, or they have a job but it doesn’t pay them enough”, but that’s pretty much it.

    Mon, April 30 at 7:46 pm
  43. David Yao said,

    Quite a long string of thoughtful posts.
    Did you see the Seattle Times article with a map of the U.S., showing how many hours of work at minimum wage it would take to rent an apartment?
    Our economy has been undermined (a whole ‘nother enormous topic) and lacks the huge base of decent-paying jobs we once had, especially for those without specialized skills or training to match existing jobs.
    Even college grads are sweating, especially those with degrees in fields that don’t translate well to employers’ wants.
    So, while pathology of some kind is at play with the more visible homeless, the economy has forced many to live in their cars or campers, who are working full- or part-time.
    The comment about lack of support network was quite right. You know all those 20- and 30-somethings who are back living with their parents? That’s the kind of economy we may be stuck with. But not everyone has the option of returning to parental homes.

    Mon, April 30 at 10:02 pm
  44. Moira said,

    Thank you walkinroun for sharing your incredibly personal experiences. I can only imagine the complicated and deep emotions you have for your brother. If I see him in West S I will pass on your message. Thank you for reminding me that each person lumped into the category of “homeless” has a unique and complex history that can’t possibly be known by just an outsider’s glance.

    Tue, May 1 at 4:56 am
  45. Michael H. said,

    “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

    “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

    “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

    “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

    Tue, May 1 at 7:41 am
  46. Dee Bee said,

    There are many reasons people end up homeless-and that is what I told my children when they were little. There’s rarely a slick, pat answer to a complex problem like this, but simplifying it down to too much alcohol isn’t the right one.

    My church recently hosted a group of homeless women and children for a week. Several of them were escaping from domestic violence situations. Others were homeless after a death or divorce. They are in a program to find jobs or get job training, housing, daycare, etc. But it takes time. We did not ever refer to them as “the homeless” but by name or as “our guests”. Some of them told us that was the best part of their visit-being treated like “regular” people.

    None of them WANTED to be homeless. None of them EXPECTED to to ever BE homeless. While it’s true that not all homeless people take advantage of the services available, treating them as “less than” and blaming them all as group fro their condition is inaccurate and cruel.

    Someone above asked a commenter if he brought his daughter to meet the guys on the street-well, what I did was greet them and look them in the eye like the real human beings they were-yes, even with my little kids. Compassion isn’t that hard. They aren’t all monsters, or drunks, or even choose to be there.

    Tue, May 1 at 9:00 am
  47. CL said,

    I’ve thought about this for a couple days before responding… I appreciate that it took bravery to write this post and open yourself up for criticism on a delicate topic. I didn’t want to rush to criticize, but I do want to respond. I walk over the 50th street overpass several times a week with my two kids (infant and 4 y.o.) for drop off and pick up at our preschool, so I’m very familiar with the group of people who are usually camped out in that area. I’ve anticipated some questions from my oldest kid about why they are holding signs, etc, but we’re usually talking about other things, fortunately. I’m not looking forward to broaching the topic.

    When I read that “Regarding myself as a progressive parent who refuses to shelter his child from uncomfortable truths…” I expected a completely different explanation to follow. In my opinion, the easiest way to explain the situation to a young child is to present the world in a somewhat black-and-white way: there are good people, and then there are not-good people who have brought problems upon themselves and land in unpleasant situations as a result, and there exists a distinct line between the two groups people. I think this is essentially the same thing as saying that the men and women asking for money near I-5 are homeless probably because they drink too much. As others in this thread have tried to point out, it’s not very fair to assume that this is the reason (or even one of the many reasons) why they are homeless. Do the people without a home drink or use drugs more than other people? Sure, probably… But I won’t make assumptions about whether any such drinking problems are the direct cause of their homelessness — seems just as likely that they are drinking because it makes a difficult situation tolerable.

    If you really want to grapple with uncomfortable truths with your child, I think you would tell your kids that most/all of these people are genuinely good people who have fallen on bad luck and probably need help. To be totally honest, I don’t know if I am strong enough to be completely honest about this all with my own 4-yr-old, because it hurts my heart to think of the inevitable questions that will follow, like Could this ever happen to us? and Why aren’t we helping this person get a place to live? It would be easier to simply tell him that the homeless are different from us because they drink too much.

    Tue, May 1 at 11:38 am
  48. Donn said,

    Is that really any more true, though? That they’re all genuinely good people who have fallen on bad luck? I mean, we can be intensely philosophical about it and affirm some kind of innate goodness in all people, but if we’re talking about more a more immediate real world assessment … I’m thinking of the guys that tried to discourage the neighbor from calling the cops by setting her car on fire? If we’re looking at the guy at the freeway bus stop, and it’s unreasonable to say his problem might be that he drinks too much, by the same rigorous standards is it reasonable to say that he’s just unlucky? At what point do your kids stop believing you?

    Tue, May 1 at 12:17 pm
  49. Dee Bee said,

    CL, my oldest DID ask, at 4, why we weren’t helping. So since his idea of renovating unused buildings for them to live in (utilities underwritten by the utility companies) wasn’t likely, he had me research organizations that help them, like the one my church works with. For several years he gave his extra change to our local homeless assistance agency. He went with me to present it to them once a year.

    Not all 4 year olds will have that level of understanding, compassion, or initiative, but it sure beat having him think they were all loser drunks.

    Tue, May 1 at 12:18 pm
  50. JC said,

    Thank you from me too walkinroun for sharing your personal story.
    I volunteer weekly at a down town food bank. Our clients span a wide array of circumstances from homeless, drug addicts, students, elderly, immigrant, unemployed and under employed. Each and every one has their own story and spending time there has taught me not to lump them all into one group. Reasonable caution and a smile goes a long way.

    Wed, May 2 at 9:00 am
  51. Floor Pie said,

    I would have done something like this:

    Kid: What bus is that man waiting for? Where is he going?

    Me: I’m not sure. I don’t know that man. Where do you think he might be going?

    And see what the child says. Listen. Perhaps he’s seen this man before and has already formed some “kid logic” theories about it, or some fears, or perhaps he’s not all that interested in pursuing the conversation just now. Maybe the conversation will yield more difficult questions, or maybe that will come another time.

    Or he might just say “I don’t know.” Then you can choose if you want to delve into it right then and there or not. Does he seem ready?

    The key is to provide information a little bit at a time. Don’t over-answer his questions. It’s such a fine line…you want to reassure the child that he is safe and that this is unlikely to happen to him, but you want to do that without dehumanizing or denying empathy for the man on the bench. Lots of folks have already provided good suggestions on how to walk that line. Choose what feels authentic to you. Put it in your own words. Or perhaps a librarian could help you find an age-appropriate book to read and discuss together.

    I can understand how the “alcohol” thing might have slipped out, but hopefully you realize now that that wasn’t the best choice. All parents slip up when we’re caught off guard like that. Next time you’ll be more prepared.

    And I hate to pile on, but I do want to add: Please remember that alcohol addiction is an actual disease. An alcoholic doesn’t “like alcohol too much” anymore than someone with a peanut allergy “dislikes peanuts too much.” The body has a completely different response to that particular substance. You don’t just say “Oh gee, I guess I just won’t drink anymore” and be done with it. Your whole body and brain are working against you every step of the way. Will power alone won’t cut it. It’s hard work and it’s amazing, really, that anyone is able to beat addiction at all.

    Good luck!

    Wed, May 2 at 10:22 pm
  52. Floor Pie said,

    One more thing — Anyone who’s genuinely interested in how to discuss difficult topics with small children should check out this post on Teacher Tom’s blog. (He’s a preschool teacher in Fremont and has a lot of excellent observations and insights to offer.) Good stuff.

    Wed, May 2 at 11:01 pm
  53. Neighbor2You said,

    Very informative thread, and an interesting adjunct to the discussion that had developed here recently:

    http://www.wallyhood.org/2012/04/alcohol-impacting-wallingford/

    I salute all you parents who are attempting to have conversations with your children about issues like homelessness or alcohol addiction. One way or another, they are forming imagery and opinions. They may come to think that alcohol is fun because it makes you “dizzy,” they may come to think that alcohol is terrible because it puts you on the street. But no matter what, I hope what’s registering is that they can raise questions and talk with YOU.

    Thu, May 3 at 5:40 am
  54. Jon said,

    To Walkinroun: Thank you for your deeply personal and poignant posting. There are two not for profit organizations in the Seattle area who work with people like your brother, THS and Evergreen. It looks like your brother went to Evergreen. I would suggest that if possible, you try to get him to go to THS where they will also treat him for mental illness issues. Evergreen does this to some extent but not with qualified mental health practitioners. Please feel free to contact me directly at: [email protected]. I would be willing to help you with this.

    Thu, May 3 at 5:24 pm
  55. Meredith said,

    A few comments from a neighborhood newbie:

    Kathy — if we cannot called them “the homeless,” what should we call people who do not have homes? I am a person, but I still may be called by a group I can be associated with “Americans,” “Seattlites,” “nerds.” Truth is not necessarily derogatory — if you assume it is, you are the one with the problem.

    Walkinroun — thank you for sharing your story. It is amazing the trials and turns a life can take.

    Jro — thank you for pointing out that everyone needs to chill. I fully agree!

    Please, everyone, keep in mind that a toddler doesn’t have any of the pre-disposed assumptions about his parent’s language that we adults do. They take things very literally.

    That said, they take things one step at a time. I grew up in both NYC and San Francisco, both cities with large homeless populations (notice I didn’t use the term homeless problem) and my father taught me that those people were “bums” and I was to not only give them no money, but ignore them. I was also taught, in school and at home, to think for myself, and as I grew up my library of knowledge grew too. I have kept my vigilance, in all situations, but I fully respect each “signed” person I come across. I say hello, and don’t often give a gift of food, but sometimes I do. Don’t put so much weight on what one adult told one child one time. Wally was faced with a tough situation, and while possibly incomplete, he didn’t say something that is outright always wrong. Like Rome, a mind isn’t formed in a day.

    Colleen @ 42 — sounds perfect.

    Anyone interested in an excellent true story about how lives can take different turns (to riches or rags) check out “Same Kind Of Different As Me” http://www.amazon.com/Same-Kind-Of-Different-As/dp/0849900417 The book gets a bit too spiritual for my taste at the end, but I really appreciated and was interested by the story.

    Thu, May 3 at 6:02 pm

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