Explaining homelessness & poverty to kids: 3 essential tips

A person experiencing homelessness sits in a garden with their head down

Children are naturally curious creatures. From the age of two or three, kids start getting a handle on their language and use it to ask questions about the world around them.

Of course, some uncomfortable questions tend to arise, and as a parent, some topics are hard to explain. Talking to children about important social issues like homelessness can leave even the most experienced parents stumped.

How do you explain homelessness to a child who has a warm, safe bed to sleep in every night?

Seeing a person experiencing homelessness can be confronting, even frightening, for a child – naturally, they’re going to want to understand why there’s a person sleeping on the street, or why some of the kids at school don’t have a consistent home to go back to.

It’s important to broach the subject of homelessness in a sensitive, proactive manner – a child’s initial impression of a person, group, or topic is influenced heavily by their parent’s language and actions.

#1. Explain that there are lots of reasons people experience homelessness (but keep it simple)

In Australia alone, more than 116,000 people are experiencing homelessness. They can be sleeping on the street, couchsurfing, living in severely overcrowded/unsafe dwellings or holding up in crisis accommodation.

There are multiple factors that contribute to homelessness, including lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, and poverty. However, going into detail about these things could confuse or even scare your child.

It’s best to keep it simple when explaining homelessness to your child. Here are a few short, simple ideas to get you started:

  1. A person who is homeless has no place of their own to sleep, eat, or to permanently keep their belongings.  
  2. A person who is homeless sometimes doesn’t have friends or family who can help them right now, so they have find different places to sleep for now.  
  3. A person who is homeless doesn’t have their own place to stay right now, but remember – it’s not forever.  
  4. A person who is homeless doesn’t have enough money to own or rent a house or an apartment, because these things are very expensive. They might not be able to work right now, or maybe their job doesn’t pay them enough money for them to afford a house.

#2. Emphasise that people experiencing homelessness are people, not problems

How you react and frame your answer makes all the difference in your child’s perception of homelessness.

Your children are always watching how you behave. If you see someone experiencing homelessness and react in a negative way, or look away uncomfortably, your child is going to pick up on your body language. They’re going to learn how they should respond to homelessness from how you respond to the situation.

When you come across a person experiencing homelessness on the street, it’s important to show compassion and emphasise the injustice of living on the street.

For example, when explaining the situation, be sensitive. Express your empathy for the person and assure your child it’s okay to feel heartbroken for someone you don’t know.

A person experiencing homelessness is a person, not a problem to be ignored.

#3. Encourage your child to learn how to help and take action as a family

When your child starts asking questions about social disadvantage, homelessness, and poverty, take the opportunity to teach your child how they can help someone experiencing homelessness.

Donating cash is going to seem like an abstract concept at their age. Instead, encourage your child to donate toys, clothing, and food. These are all things your child already has, cherishes, and maybe even takes for granted.

Explain that people experiencing homelessness don’t often have these special treats and essentials like food. Someone experiencing homelessness would very much appreciate the gifts.

You can take action against homelessness in Australia by writing a letter to your local MP, asking what they are doing about the increasing issue of homelessness and unaffordable housing. The Everybody’s Home campaign website has easy-to-read information about the state of homelessness in Australia and what needs to be done to solve it. Government action is crucial to end homelessness. Samaritans CEO recently wrote a blog about it for Homelessness Week; this might also help with your letter writing.

Explaining poverty and homelessness to your child doesn’t have to be difficult

Answering awkward questions is never fun. It can make your heart race, make you blush, and make you sweat as you scramble to find the right answer.

However, explaining social issues like homelessness to your child doesn’t have to be difficult. Unfortunately, homelessness is increasing in Australia, and your child is bound to come across someone experiencing homelessness at least once in their lives.

The trick is to be straightforward on the issue – a lot of people experience homelessness in their lives for a number of unique reasons. Emphasise the importance of feeling for them and showing respect, while also teaching your child the value of helping someone in need.