Explaining homelessness to young children who have not experienced it is tough, but there are age-appropriate and honest answers. Public-classroom teachers and early-childhood educators can use these responses as a guide, and also distribute them to parents. Naturally, answers should be adjusted, depending on children’s ages.

Explain that not everyone who doesn’t have a permanent place to stay actually lives on the street or in public parks. Many people without homes—especially families with children—stay with others, in shelters, in hotel rooms, or in their cars. However, children often ask about the very obviously homeless people they see in public spaces. Here are commonly asked questions, and answers to consider as you teach homelessness to youth:

Why are there people sitting/lying on the street/subway?

  • He/she doesn’t have a permanent place to live right now.

Why are there people who are unclean/asking for money/wheeling around a shopping cart?

  • People without homes don’t always have a place to take a shower or bath.
  • He/she doesn’t have money to buy the things he/she needs.
  • The shopping cart is like a suitcase or travel bag. He/she keeps his/her belongings in there.

Where do people without homes go when it gets cold or rainy?

  • Some places have shelters that people without homes can go to sleep and stay warm/dry/safe, but they can’t always stay there all the time.

How did that happen to them?

  • We don’t know everyone’s story; it can happen for many different reasons.

Can we help them?

  • It isn’t safe to go up to any stranger, but together, we’ll figure out a way to help.
  • We can volunteer at our food pantry/soup kitchen, donate clothes we don’t use anymore, or start collecting change in a bowl to donate to an organization that helps them.

Families can also assemble “care kits”—self-sealing bags to keep in the car trunk and distribute when appropriate, or leave in a place where people without homes frequent, like an area of a park. In each bag you might include items like lip balm, single-serving snacks, wet wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, a bottle of water, a dollar bill, a hairbrush, and so on.