By Patricia Jones, Task Force on Poverty
I started writing these columns to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness in America, and in our area. Part of becoming more aware and compassionate about people in poverty is educating our children. When we help them become more understanding, we can replace fear, judgment, or bullying of those less fortunate. Under not-so-different circumstances, each of us might face similar problems.
There is a great deal of literature available about homelessness in America. Many of us have read the bestselling nonfiction books Evicted by Matthew Desmond or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. We may have read The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner or seen the movie version starring Will Smith. Several novels also feature characters who are homeless.
Children’s literature also includes some great books about homelessness. Let’s take a look at some picture books for small children ages 3-8; these can be found on YouTube. (Even adults enjoy having picture books read to them.) All of these books have been used in elementary, middle school, high school, and college classrooms because of the great topics for discussion.
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting tells the story of a homeless boy who lives in an airport with his father. (This was written in the 90’s before airport security was enhanced.) Their goal is not to be noticed. Homeless people who were too dirty, or who slept across a row of seats, or who made noise were removed by airport security. So the boy and his father move from terminal to terminal, wash in the bathrooms, wear blue clothes, sleep sitting up. On weekends the father works as a janitor in the city, and the boy is cared for by a homeless mother and her son. The boy is given hope when a trapped bird finally finds its freedom and gets to fly away home. This book earned the Heal the World award.
The Can Man by Laura E Williams tells the story of Tim, who wants a skateboard but his parents can’t afford it. Tim sees the Can Man going through the trash every day to get aluminum cans to sell, and Tim decides he can do the same. Then he learns that the man used to be his parents’ neighbor, but he lost his job when the auto shop he worked for closed and now he is homeless. He is trying to save enough money to get a winter coat before the snow falls.
Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis tells the story of a little girl and her parents who have lost their home and must live in a homeless shelter. Even worse, due to a common shelter policy, her dad must live in a men's shelter, separated from her and her mom. The family still finds time to be together by meeting at the park to play and celebrate special days together. While the young girl wishes for better days when her family is together again under a roof of their own, she continues to remind herself that they're still a family even in times of separation.
A Shelter in Our Car by Monica Gunning tells the story of Jamaican immigrants, a mother and her daughter Zettie, who have moved to America after Papa dies. But they cannot come up with the first and last month’s rent needed to move into an apartment. Mama looks for work every day while Zettie goes to school. Mama’s temporary work sometimes even earns enough that they can spend the night in a motel and sleep in a real bed.
This next book is not available on YouTube but has won a number of awards. This wordless picture book, I See You by Michael Genhart, depicts a homeless woman who is unseen by everyone around her – except for a little boy. Over the course of a year, the boy is witness to all that she endures. Ultimately, in a gesture of compassion, the boy acknowledges her through an exchange in which he sees her and she experiences being seen.
These children’s books all have lesson plans that can be found on the Internet, and could be used by Sunday School classes or youth organizations. Any age group would enjoy discussions about what people need to survive, obstacles faced by the poor, or about compassion. How about invisibility? Do we see homeless people? Do they want to be seen?