This week, our church is hosting Howard County's "Cold Weather Shelter"--the overflow shelter for the area, hosted by a different church each week during the colder months, and administered by Grassroots, our area's crisis counseling center. What this means is that there are around 25 men and women, 5 children and 1 infant living in our church building at the moment, sleeping on foam mats on the floor, eating breakfast and dinner, watching TV, taking a shower, and generally doing life. It makes for an interesting week.
Last night, my daughter's Brownie troop was in charge of making bag lunches for everyone. We assembled them at one family's house, and then seven 8 and 9 year old girls and about 5 parents brought them to the church. Before making sandwiches, I sat with the girls and talked a little about why people might be homeless, and what we can do to help. I've had this talk with kids before, and I began as I usually do by asking, "If, for some reason, you and your family could no longer live in your house, where do you think you would go to live?"
I ask this question in order to help kids think about their "social safety net" and how important it is. So, most of the time, kids talk about staying with their extended families or their friends. Then, I can point out how much we rely on each other, and how we need to become the extended family of people who don't have those connections for whatever reason.
Last night, a number of the girls did talk about staying with family, with their friends or with their parents' friends. But the conversation took a slightly different turn that I expected when the first girl to answer my question said quite thoughtfully, "Well, in the winter, I think we would go stay in the Cold Weather Shelter. In the summer I think we would be alright sleeping outside, or staying in a tent." Her mother, who was standing next to me, looked a little shocked at the idea of their family of five living outside, but the girl didn't seem particularly anxious about it. Then another Brownie suggested her family's plan would be to "live in the woods and build a log cabin for the winter." That got another girl going on how she had visited Lafayette Park in DC and seen people sleeping on park benches there. She had given one of them the fifty cents she had on her. The other girls nodded in approval.
I was intrigued. My plan had been to highlight the things that prevent homelessness, but instead these girls jumped right to imagining themselves as homeless, living in a shelter, in the woods or even on a park bench. It's not a bad way to build empathy. When we brought the lunches to the church, all the girls were disappointed the kids weren't "home", but had gone to the library. As we drove back home, we passed the central library, and one of the girls pointed it out. "That's where the kids are now," she said, peering out the window. "They're probably doing their homework, or playing on the computer." She clearly was imagining herself in their situation.
I wish we could have experiences like that every week, every month. There are plenty of places where adults can volunteer to help homeless or poor people, but very few places for kids to do so in a direct way. And going to a shelter or a meal program is not the same as meeting and serving people in your own church, which in many ways is like your own home. I love to see people from KC just hanging around and talking to the shelter guests--everyone seems relaxed and at ease around each other. Our care for each other feels more natural in such a setting. It feels familial, friendly. It feels like the beginnings of a social (and not just an institutional) safety net.