Scary. Dirty. Drunk.
Those are some of the words that a classroom full of children used to describe homelessness, said Andrea Urton, who leads the nonprofit HomeFirst, which runs the largest shelters in Silicon Valley.
“One child said ‘AIDS’ once,” Urton said.
Urton says it’s critical for communities to change the conversation around homelessness to build understanding and empathy.
But how do you do that with children, who increasingly see people living under bridges on the drive to school or sleeping in front of dark storefronts?
In Silicon Valley, the home of tech-fueled wealth, how do we talk to kids about one of the most pressing issues of our time? How do we dispel the myths?
Cliff Navales, a project manager for Downtown Streets Team in San Jose, said questions like, “Why can’t they just get a job?” and “Can’t they just stay in a shelter for the time being?” are regularly brought up to him about unhoused people.
“Well, if you’re homeless, you don’t have a place to shower, no interview clothes, difficult access to internet and digital tools. Also their dignity and confidence are not at an all time high,” Navales told San José Spotlight.
“Most shelters have a limit on how long they can stay,” he added. “A lot of people experiencing homelessness are afraid they will have their stuff stolen and be taken advantage of. Most of them are in survival mode.”
He urges people to question what they would do if they suddenly became homeless.
Navales said people — and even children — often carry with them the misconception about homeless people “that all of them are drunks and drug addicts,” which is not true.
“Most people become homeless because of job loss and high cost of rent,” he added. “I also tell people that being homeless is not an identifier but an experience. I try to get people to imagine what it’s like being homeless for a day.”
“I do not have kids, but I have seriously considered writing a children’s book to address this very issue,” Megan Colvard, regional director for PATH. “I think the main message for children is that we are all someone’s child or loved one, and we all seek love and belonging.”
“A lot of times more people think all homeless [people] have serious mental health conditions and have been homeless for a long time,” said Robert Stromberg, project manager at Destination: Home. “And the data just doesn’t fair that out.”
He, like other advocates, stressed that “perhaps the most giant misconception is that people don’t realize that we know how to end homelessness.”
Ending those misconceptions and helping children understand the complex issue of homelessness involves engaging neighbors to discuss the root causes and possible solutions.
“The participation that people can have is really having more conversations to make sure these misconceptions are cleared up, to sort of answer people’s fears, because we have to recognize people’s fears,” he said. “We can’t dismiss them.”
But there’s hope. In the back of that classroom, Urton said, as kids shouted out deragotary terms to describe homelessness, one child used the word “human.”
Contact Kyle Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.