Talking WithChildren About Homeless People

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     Gregory Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at Dayton Children's and Dayton Daily News

Talking With Children About Homeless People

         I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San
Francisco. I learned a lot about recent research in Psychology, but I was troubled by what I saw within a
few blocks of my downtown hotel—numerous homeless people sleeping in doorways and asking for
         I spent some time talking with these people and observing how others, particularly children and
parents, responded to these individuals.
         Some of these street people had made a conscious decision to adopt this lifestyle. “Why lie…I
need money for beer,” was one of many cardboard signs designed to attract attention and money. “My
wife has been kidnapped…. need 99 cents more for her ransom,” was another sign. “This is a very
competitive business,” said the sign holder, “and it got your attention, didn’t it?” I spoke for a while
with this well-mannered man in his mid 20s. He had an apartment with friends, and spent his day on the
street asking for money. “I can’t live like everyone else,” he said. “I need my freedom. I’m a lot happier
than the people I see walking by me every day.”
         In stark contrast to these individuals were others who slept on the street and appeared to have
serious problems. I’d see these folks huddled in doorways every morning when I went running along
Market Street. They were dirty, smelly, and seemed unable to care for themselves. “They control my
speech…I’m being raped…they put a radio controlled krypton in my head…no talking, don’t say a
word,” was one particularly distressing sign.
         Many of these people would have been treated in mental hospitals 50 years ago. However, in the
mid 1950s, the population of hospitalized mental patients began to decrease substantially. The
development of psychiatric drugs made outpatient care more cost effective. There also were concerns
about forced hospitalization of people who had not committed any legal offenses. Mental illness is not a
crime, and many patient rights groups argued for the release of the mentally ill into community
treatment facilities. These patients were discharged from hospitals, but comprehensive community
programs were never fully developed. Twenty five to 50 percent of the estimated three quarters of a
million homeless people have a serious mental or drug disorder.
          I was surprised by the number of children who asked their parents for money to give to some of
these street people. I also saw several kids reading the various signs and laughing. The gentleman who
talked about it being a “competitive business” was right. Humorous signs elicited more funds than a
cardboard cup in front of an unkempt man lying in the doorway.
          I’m sure that families didn’t visit San Francisco to talk with their kids about street people. Even
so, these unplanned events are wonderful opportunities to engage kids in conversations about real
          *Who are these people? Talk with your children about this problem. Why would someone live
on the street? Is this an issue of lifestyle or mental illness? Should they be allowed to sleep in public
doorways? Should mentally ill people be forced into treatment? Depending upon the age of your
children, talk with these street people. You’d be surprised at what you may learn!
          *How can we help? Should you give money to street people? Don’t simply ask your child’s
opinion on this tough issue. Have them discuss the advantages and risks of putting money in a
cardboard box.
          *Correct misbehavior. During the course of several days I saw two instances of teenage boys
making fun of street people. I couldn’t tell if the parents said anything to these kids, but I’d come down
on them pretty hard. I don’t understand why anyone would ridicule those who are less fortunate. Would
you mock someone who had breast cancer or a brain tumor? Mental illnesses among the homeless are a
serious problem, and these people deserve our understanding not ridicule.
          These are tough topics to talk about with our kids, and certainly not as much fun as a trip to the
Golden Gate Bridge or the sea lions at Pier 39. However, I suspect that for many kids, such discussions
may have a greater impact than yet another family vacation with digital pictures of typical tourist
          Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services
at The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. For more columns by Dr. Ramey, visit the Dayton
Children’s website at and sign up for FamilyWise, a free e-newsletter
for parents.