Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of homeless people out panhandling for money. My daughter (almost 6) is empathetic and wants to help everyone by giving them money, food, a ride somewhere. She sees me giving food (granola bars and bottles of water) and occasionally a dollar, but I feel like it’s not enough since she doesn’t see me give larger donations to organizations that help people in need.
How can I talk to her about helping people, while also driving by without actually doing anything in the moment? Are there any age-appropriate ways to involve her in this? I don’t think she’d be a good helper at a soup kitchen yet, and at a certain point it feels like “tourism” to take a kid to a shelter. We do talk a lot about donating unused toys/clothes to kids who don’t have as much as we do, but my dilemma is mostly related to the homeless people we actually see begging on the street. Any thoughts?
Helping the homeless
If you’re paying attention, and it sounds like you and your daughter are, it’s painful to walk past people in need and not help them. But it’s also painful to know that your dollar isn’t going to change the systemic and possibly life-long reasons that these people are on the street.
It may take a long time for her to understand that, but you can help her by continuing to teach her compassion and by teaching her specifically about the power of tzedakah (charity).
You’re probably right that you can’t give something to every person you pass, depending on where you’re located and how often you’re driving or walking past certain areas.
One of the best things you can do is acknowledge the humanity of these individuals. Make eye contact. Say hello. Wish them a good morning. Model to your daughter that you think of these people as people, even if you can’t feed all of them. Giving away food is also a logical middle ground, though, and if someone is sitting outside a store or restaurant that you’re going into, you can ask if you can bring them something, in addition to carrying snacks with you to give away when possible.
As for your larger donations, involve your daughter. She can see you write the check or pay online. She can look at organizations’ brochures or websites with you and see the kind of work they do in your community.
If your daughter doesn’t have her own allowance, consider starting to give her a small amount on a weekly basis, with a portion of it pre-designated for tzedakah. Then she can decide to add that onto your larger donations, or she can carry coins with her to give out to homeless people from her own money. Safety could be a concern, but this potential exchange provides an opportunity for teaching your daughter about gauging safety, which is always an important lesson anyway.
I also recommend looking into whether your synagogue has any community service or volunteer opportunities open to kids. While certain kinds of activities can feel like tourism, if they’re well-vetted through a trusted organization, you can be more confident in the quality of the experience.
If you have an “in” with a local organization or, really, even if you don’t, find out if they have a hotline. In Philadelphia, if you call Project HOME, you can tell them the location of a homeless person, and they’ll send someone out to check on them and connect them with resources.
None of these actions will solve homelessness, but they are good for you, your daughter and the people on the receiving end, even temporarily.