How to teach your kids compassion for the homeless (and let them teach you)

A late Saturday morning a while back, I had our 10- and 11-year-old kids in the car, headed out to bring them to visit their cousins for the day. We'd pulled into the Taco Bell drive-thru on East Tudor Road for a quick, inexpensive lunch. As we rounded the corner into the restaurant's parking lot, a man had positioned himself at the driveway entrance with a cardboard sign that read "Anything helps."

"We have to get him a taco!" our boy blurted out after one glance at the man. We bought two extra items: a soft chicken taco and a Doritos Loco taco.

A quick clarification -- the kids I refer to aren't my kids in the sense of giving birth to them, or of adopting them, or any other "official" bond the possessive phrase "my kids" implies. They are relatives who have lived with us for more than a year. Yet they are very much my kids. I knew as soon as our family agreed to bring these children and their father into our home that I would love and care for them as fully as the rest of our brood. I am not their real mother, as they like to remind me from time to time. But I am Mom. It's too complicated to explain our relationship any other way.

I should also mention that this Taco Bell is about one block away from the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that provides beds and meals for homeless and poor people.

We paid for our order and collected it from the drive-thru window. Our boy quickly dug through the bag to make sure the extra food was in there.

"Okay, Jill, now let's give it to him," he said.

Our boy has known the dull ache of an empty stomach. Not the discomfort of having to wait for a late-cooked meal but the painful grumble that comes when there is no dinner to be had. I think there is something about having known hunger that inspires those who have the least to willingly share the most.

Our kids have a personal code of values about how and when it's OK to help. Don't give money, because the person might use it to buy alcohol. They also won't support self-destructive behavior, drug or alcohol use, ethics they developed after watching loved ones battle alcoholism.

But hunger holds a different place in their value system. Is it their village hearts that make them share so readily? Their Alaska Native values? The purity of a child's spirit, as of yet unhardened by adult responsibilities, obligations and judgment?

Homelessness and hunger go hand in hand, but not always. Many families don't have a roof over their head. Many that do have a place to live struggle to make ends meet. I fear the creep of that struggle will touch more of us as Alaska grapples with its economic fate.

"We certainly see the local economy correlate with people falling into that type of situation," said Carmen Wenger, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

The coalition found that from October 2013 to October 2014, 7,506 people in Anchorage were homeless. A more comprehensive poll, which incorporated living situations like couch surfing and staying in a motel or hostel, raised the organization's count to 9,728, according to Wenger. Already the coalition is starting to see a rise in the number of seniors needing services, she said.

Nancy Burke, Anchorage's Housing and Homeless Services coordinator, likes to put this struggle into context by looking at rental costs. In Anchorage, the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $1,021 per month; two-bedroom units, for $1,292. Minimum wage earners working full-time at $9.75 per hour bring home $20,280 a year before taxes. A two-person family with this income is $360 above the federal poverty line. The one-bedroom unit will gobble up two-thirds of the annual income; a two-bedroom unit, three-fourths.

"Our daily call volume has increased already this year. I can only imagine that that will continue to be the trend," said Sue Brogan, vice president of income health impact for United Way of Anchorage, the nonprofit that runs 2-1-1, a statewide information referral system that can connect people in need with services. There is never enough money to meet the demand for rent and utility assistance, Brogan said.

In 2015, 2-1-1 took 22,184 calls and from those made 31,761 referrals. Nearly half of the calls were from people who needed help with basic needs -- food, housing, transportation, utilities. This year, the call center is receiving as many as 250 calls a day, with most, Brogan said, likely to be from the Anchorage area.

The people out panhandling are a visible sign of the economic instability people are experiencing. But the ones who aren't out on the street corners asking for help may be just one crummy event away from an episode of homelessness. A car that breaks down and prevents them from getting to work. A cut in job hours. An illness. Death in the family. Lack of child care. Or cuts to other services (food, rent, utility assistance) they may already rely on to scrape by.

Change for the Better, an Anchorage campaign launched more than a decade ago to thwart panhandling, worked to convince Alaskans that "a hand out is not a hand up," and that "real change – not spare change – is the best way to help out panhandlers."

I admit, I profoundly dislike it when a stranger approaches me for money. And I rear into defense mode if they do it when I have my children with me. Sometimes, though, I'll offer up what little money I might have crumpled in a coat pocket, choosing to believe some woebegone tale about having locked the keys in the car or having just run out of gas. These stories are easy cons, but they are also real things that happen to real people, including me.

As a public and polite society, we have been educated to not give money to people, and to instead donate to well-meaning and trusted agencies, and to not feel bad about saying no.

But where is the campaign showing us how to tell a child who sees and feels something for someone in need to turn away? To disconnect from their humanitarian impulse -- connecting and helping another person one on one -- and walk away?

Ultimately, it's a personal choice, said Burke, who believes donations to trusted agencies remain a good investment. Some families hand out gift cards for restaurants; others, bags with hand warmers and soup cups. Brogan recommends harnessing the impulse to help by encouraging young people to volunteer for causes they care about.

When we pulled away from Taco Bell and rounded the corner out of the parking lot, the man with the sign was gone. Our boy spotted him two blocks down the road, walking with a companion into Campbell Creek Park.

We honked to get their attention. The man and his friend, a woman, turned and walked to our car.

"Here, these are for you," said our boy, handing the bag of tacos to the man through an open window.

"Thank you. Thanks a lot," said the man as he gave us a smile. It seemed genuine.

The man and his friend had a small grocery bag filled with what looked like a few snacks and a to-go bag from a different fast food place. They didn't need our tacos after all. But I'd like to believe he received something more that day -- the earnest compassion of a child -- and that we in return received what felt like earnest gratitude.

Were they homeless? Alcoholics? Drug users? Out of work? Unwilling to work? Working but unable to make ends meet? It didn't matter.

My child thought the man was hungry, and in that moment that's what mattered. Compassion compelled our boy to take action, and I wasn't going to stand in his way.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.