When our children look at homelessness with empathy and compassion, they can see beyond the surface in people.
Growing up poor on the south side of the city, I spent a lot of time thinking about the world and how it views poor people and the homeless community. I encountered those experiencing homelessness every day, less than a mile from my house. I observed a correlation between money and status and how people from different classes interacted with one another. I was one of six children raised by a single mom, and because money was always the topic in our house, it affected what I thought equated to happiness in life. I remember telling myself I would never let money be my driving force, but instead, I would focus on how I treated people who had less than me. I would use empathy: imagining myself in their shoes so I could understand them better. At the end of the day, if someone could look beyond my circumstances and just see me as a person, not knowing where I came from, that ultimately made me feel richer than money ever would.
To be seen and heard is a priceless gift that one human can give to another. Validation can be empowering. Having a voice that is heard even in the loudest chaos can bring a higher level of human empathy when you take time to understand.
We took our daughters to Chicago one afternoon when they were much younger for an adventure in the Windy City. Our family spent the day taking in the sights, the museums, eating delicious pizza and casually browsed all the windows of the stores on Magnificent Mile. Before heading out for our trip that day, I made sure to bring along the little flower purses I had bought my girls from a local farmer’s market. They had watched as I placed a handful of coins in their purses already donned with Lip Smackers and temporary tattoos. When they asked why I put money in their purses, I said it was because you never know when you may need it.
While walking the city streets, we couldn’t help notice folks lining up on the street corners and stoops holding signs. As I leaned down to drop money into a cup, I could feel my daughters watching me. As we approached another man, one of my daughters motioned to me that she wanted to stop. She opened her little purse and took out a handful of change and dropped it into his bucket. That experience planted a seed and started a discussion with our girls. We explored the possibilities of why people may end up experiencing homelessness and what we can do to help them.
While both of my girls took away lessons from that day, one of my now teenage daughters felt her experience around the homeless profoundly resonated with her. Hence, she initiated a project close to her heart called “Sienna’s Angels. ” Since her fifth-grade year, she has gathered funds and put together essential items in bags and delivered them to organizations helping those in need and the homeless community. That single day in Chicago taught her that you never know where someone has come from, their story, and what led them to desperation. She learned that sometimes in life, bad choices can have a domino effect and that sometimes a broken system can leave you behind, and sometimes yes, there is dishonesty or criminal intent.
I want my children to recognize what can lead to homelessness; it is our job as good human beings to see them first with compassion and empathy. Then we get to work, and we offer to help–however we can.
In a world that is so unsettled right now with anxiety during a global pandemic and racial injustices being confronted head-on in communities everywhere, it is bringing to light the urgent need in society for ‘back-to-basics’ human compassion and empathy. Perhaps by continuing to teach the idea of empathy through the eyes of our youth, we can find our path through this pivotal time in history to help give voices to people who must be seen and heard.