It's a national reaction to become immobilized when confronted with a huge problem. Time and again, I'm asked, "Yes, I'd love to help the homeless. But it seems so massive -- what can I do?"
Here's one practical tip: If you have school-aged child, chances are, in the next couple of weeks, you'll be buying a ton of "Back to School" supplies. My son, Quinn, is starting 3rd grade and I was astonished how the list of supplies has grown over just a couple of years.
But rather than bemoaning this undertaking -- take your child along with you. And while you are stocking up, explain to your daughter or son that there are a record number of kids this year who are homeless and can't afford the most basic supplies or a backpack. So buy an extra -- notebook, package of pens, crayons -- because whatever your child needs, there is a homeless child who is also returning to school soon who also needs these basics, but can't afford them. And showing up empty handed the first week of school is just one more source of shame for kids who have already shouldered more than any youngster should.
In New York City, the Coalition for the Homeless is partnering with the United Federation for Teachers, WPIX and many other groups, to put together 3,000 backpacks, loaded with supplies for homeless children. Last year, we were able to give 1,500 homeless boys and girls a leg up as they start school. We raised our goal this year, because homelessness has soared. Tonight, close to 15,000 children will sleep in the emergency shelter system. And, given Mayor Bloomberg's shortsighted housing policies, there is no relief in sight.
Within one year of becoming homeless, 41 percent of school-aged homeless kids will attend two or more schools and 28 percent will attend three or more schools! Homeless youth are twice as likely to wind up in special education classes. Stability is a main pillar for a happy child. But being shuffled around to shelter after shelter, school to school, or having to travel hours to and from school breeds chaos. Missed meals, separation from friends and family, mirroring the frustration and anger of parents, and constantly moving from shelter to shelter wreak havoc physically and mentally.
By bringing your child into the process of buying an extra backpack, you are also empowering them -- letting them know that, first, there is a boy or girl exactly their age, with no place to call home tonight. As scary as that is, they can still do something as simple and meaningful as helping that child get off to the right foot in school. Many kids put a short note in the backpack, wishing their homeless counterpart a great year -- or letting them know they hope he or she loves Spiderman or iCarly (or whatever is on the backpack) as much as they do!
Most people still associate homelessness with its most visible victims -- mentally-ill men and women on our streets. But homelessness among families is the fastest growing segment and it's imperative that we start, at a young age, to humanize this tragedy. If our sons and daughters understand that "homeless" also means someone who looks just like them, someone who likes the same things they do, plays the same games, listens to the same songs and watches the same T.V. shows, then we are beginning to plant the seeds of empathy. Not sympathy -- empathy. Let's start young and get concrete about something specific and doable for our kids!