Talks With TC

May 5, 2017

I ask, “Are there any questions?” Without fail, hands shoot up, and one of these hands will come down and ask the question that always gets asked. I’m in front of a classroom of 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th graders who are doing a unit on poverty, homelessness and hunger. I’ve been invited to their classroom by Need in Deed, an organization that attempts to encourage and educate students to be more community minded. These kids are enthusiastic about being better citizens, and caring for their unlucky neighbors experiencing deep poverty and homelessness. They want to know what they can do.

The truth is, I don’t know what they can do. They’re too young to volunteer at Broad Street, and most of them won’t be old enough for years. They could hold a clothing drive, but they know as well as I that a clothing drive won’t connect them to their neighbors in the way they want.

I give a similar, somewhat rambling speech to each of these classrooms. I’m not there to recruit social workers, and I don’t really have the expertise to tell them how to fix Philadelphia’s many ills. But I hope I can encourage them to be more empathic citizens. I want to gently erase the line between “us” and “them”. To help them see that most of what keeps each of us from experiencing homelessness, is luck. I tell each group where they’ll be when homeless, should the bad luck that sets a person on that road occur today.

And then I start telling them about trauma. With young kids I’ve found the most effective description of traumatization is this: memory distortion. Being traumatized can distort your memories, so often you cannot discern what happened to you from what happened to someone else, nor what happened one night years ago to what happened last night. As a result, every morning you wake up could be the day after you were attacked. Being traumatized means any day could be your worst day.

Kids get this. They can remember their worst days, and the prospect of that day repeating is a scary one. And now they want to help. I tell them that getting over trauma is hard, and can take months or longer. For most of them, panhandlers are their primary encounter with people experiencing homelessness. How do they know that the dollar they might give a panhandler will go to food and not drugs? I tell them every time: there is no way to know.

The follow-up question always comes: if I cannot know, what should I do? I remind them about the kinds of scarcities our guests face, that we talked about earlier. Our guests struggle with access to food and shelter and health care and safety and more, and meeting these needs take time and resources beyond what can be accomplished in a single encounter. But our guests also struggle for attention and recognition, for the chance to be heard and validation that they are real people, worthy of such things. So when a teenager asks me what to do when someone asks for money, I encourage them to do the hardest thing: stop, and talk. If you choose to give money or not, that’s your decision, and you’ll have to assess the pros and cons of it from your own values. But you do have something you can give that is unlikely to suffer unintended consequences. You have your time, and your attention. Give it freely.

Written by: TC Shillingford