We live in Vancouver, Canada, which for various reasons (weather, policy effects, etc.) has a large homeless population. Many of them suffer mental illness of some degree. Panhandlers are a common sight on the street. More than once we have been approached by a panhandler inside local restaurants.

Four-year-olds, being four-years-olds, take all this in and notice that there's something going on here out of their ordinary experience. In the same vein, I know they can be very sensitive to adults' discomfort about certain subjects and that can have unpredictable effects—maybe bringing more questions or teaching them there's something wrong or to fear.

My 4yo is clearly struggling with these ideas. He retells one particular incident a few months ago of a panhandler approaching he and his mother while they ate, retelling the events and the conversation he had with his mother just after. He's unsettled, but not fearfully. His mother's approach is to talk with him about the (4yo-level) facts of it—that they don't have anywhere to live, that they're hungry, that they are asking for food or money. That he's still retelling that conversation tells me that he's not figured out what to do with it yet. And understandably so—it's a complicated enough subject for adults, let alone young children.

As the primary caregiver, I get these retellings most often. I don't know how to talk with him usefully about it. I don't want to discourage him and thereby teach him that these are "bad" questions or subjects to think about, but I don't know how to engage with his conversations about it except to affirm his statements. I don't want to be silent either, or not-so-subtly shift him off the subject, because that amounts to the same thing.

How do I talk to a 4-year-old about homelessness and all the related subjects his questions will inevitably include?

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    Have you asked him what he thinks about the situation? Why does he think the panhandler is homeless? Why does he think the panhandler doesn't have any food? Is he worried for them? Does he want to help them? Sometimes the best way to talk to a kid is to help them talk to you.
    – philosodad
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 19:38
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    @philosodad He does because we've talked as frankly as possible about these things with him. The problem is that I'm uncomfortable talking about these things with him and don't know how to approach it. But yes, I haven't thought to ask him how he feels about it. That's good. That's the kind of advice I need to get outside of the issue of my own discomfort and start being useful to him.
    – Septagon
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 19:52
  • I know this is a bit late to the party, but homelessness and mental illness are really two different issues (my wife, being both a national homelessness advocate and a mental health professional, has provided me with a bit of an education on the subject), and you might be surprised how many homeless there are with no mental health issues at all (aside from the stress and depression being homeless may cause). Would you mind if we edited out the part about mental illness, since the focus seems to be much more on the homeless/begging aspect than any possible mental illness?
    – user420
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 18:11
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    @Beofett It's pretty integral to my actual problem, so I'd mind. I know that most homeless people aren't mentally ill, but it's the ones who are that capture his attention most. The "co-morbidity" is high enough that it's part of the actual experience I struggle to explain. Explaining them separately doesn't address his experience, and because there is a lot of intersectional issues between homelessness and mental illness, especially here, they can't be completely addressed separately anyway. I know it complicates the question, but it's complicated.
    – Septagon
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:25
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    @SevenSidedDie I will leave it at your discretion, but the only mention of "mental illness" in your question is the title, and "Many of [the local homeless population] suffer mental illness of some degree". Mental illness is a pretty general term, and it would be harder to come up with a single answer that covers mental illness than homelessness (which isn't exactly a simple topic by itself).
    – user420
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:43

5 Answers 5


Possibly the part he's struggling with is the "why?" Why do they not have anywhere to live? Why are they hungry? When we need shelter, we go home; when we are hungry, we go to the fridge or a restaurant...why don't these people have a home/fridge/access to a restaurant?

"Because they don't have the money" will probably lead to why they don't have any money. This topic will probably open up numerous cans of worms, but as long as you keep the language simple in terms he will understand, straightforward facts is usually the best approach. Children often understand a lot more (conceptually, as opposed to linguistically, which can prove quite frustrating for them at times, and sometimes for caregivers as well) than we give them credit for.

Since you say his reaction is not a fearful one, my best guess without being there in person would be that he is concerned about homelessness. Perhaps concern directly for the individuals he's observed, perhaps at the concept that if others could be homeless could we be homeless too? Perhaps both.

In summary, straight talk in simple terms is almost always the best approach.

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    When talking with my daughter about certain subjects, I also try to be aware of when I am stating something that is my opinion rather than an actual fact, and try to follow it with some examples of differing opinions that other might have.
    – bee.catt
    Commented Jun 28, 2012 at 19:18

Do you have an answer that would satisfy yourself to explain homelessness and mental illness?

Without getting into debate about the causes and effects in this thread, I would consider your understanding of it.

I would explain it based on that perspective. To my own child, I'd say:

Some people aren't able to act the way they would like to, but most people can. Sometimes when people can't control what they do, a Doctor can help them. But sometimes Doctors haven't learned how to help them yet, or those people don't go to see the Doctor.

Having a place to stay takes a lot of responsibility. When people are not in control of what they do, they can't do the important things that let them have a place to stay.

Where we live, there are people who try to help those kinds of people to control themselves better. But sometimes they say they don't want help, or we don't know how to help them. When that happens, we have to let them do the best they can. Sometimes they do things that we don't think is normal, and that might be weird or scary. But they do the best they can.

My answer should likely be different than yours because you might not have the same opinion on the matter as I do.

  • This is a pretty interesting script. I'm not sure it solves my problem completely, but it gives me some pieces I think would fill some of the gaps that keeps him prodding at the idea.
    – Septagon
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:28
  • This is a good answer. It manages to condense a complex topic into something suitable for discussion with a child, without stigmatising mental illness or homeless people.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 22:45
  • "...we have to let them do the best they can." is a great statement in almost any discussion about adverse outcomes.
    – kleineg
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 20:46

There is a really good picture book called "Fly Away Home" by eve bunting. It has been a long time since I've read it, but it is a story about a man and his son who live in the airport and may offer up some ideas for you. Not all homeless are mentally ill either.

I'm sure there are probably some good treatises for kids about mental illness as well. I'd suggest asking your local children's librarian for ideas (they are often VERY helpful) with this kind of thing.

  • 4
    Thanks for the recommendation! No, not all homeless are mentally ill, but due to a historical bit of politics (a conservative gov came to power and closed our biggest mental hospital, effectively consigning the patients to the streets) there's a much higher than usual overlap. It's noticeable, and often entangled in his experience of homelessness.
    – Septagon
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 15:57

I would present this as "some people are not able to do things we think are ordinary." By now he has presumably met or seen or heard of someone who cannot walk, or who cannot see or hear. Some are born with a disability, some acquire it through disease or accident. And our society does what it can to help - ramps next to stairs, sign language interpreters, and so on.

In the same way, some people cannot follow our rules about behaving well. It's not that they don't want to, or can't be bothered, they can't do it. And in the long run that can lead to not being able to work, or to live with other people. It's really sad. There are some things we as a society do to help, but they don't all work. Some people try to help by giving money for food; some people think that doesn't really help. It's complicated.

[Yes, some people end up homeless when there is nothing wrong with them through sheer bad luck - a layoff with no support network to help you, that sort of thing. I believe that is less common in Vancouver than in some other places. But some stay homeless and some do not, and some of that is about their mental state - even if being homeless caused that mental state. For explaining to a child, focusing on bad luck or bad decisions in the explanation strikes me as unfair and either blaming the homeless person or worrying the child that this could be their future. I would avoid both even if that meant glossing over some possible explanations of how this person ended up in this situation.]

The one thing to avoid here is some sort of logic that connects your child's occasional transgressions (like being loud in the grocery store or not sharing nicely) with the fate of the clearly crazy homeless guy begging for money. To that end you might want to emphasize the biological and nonvoluntary aspects of mental illness a little more than the actual facts of the matter would support. I think also 4 is too young to mention the role that substance abuse may play. (Besides, that's complicated. A childhood friend of mine ended up homeless and schizophrenic after a lot of substance abuse and it seems in hindsight that the glue etc was self medication for how his illness made him feel more than it was the cause of it.)

I would do my best to take a tone of "these are people who need help but we might not be the people to help" and not "these are scary people, stay away from them, and pray you don't end up like them" especially to a 4 year old. Most homeless people would never hurt anyone, much less a child. They make us uncomfortable because we can't be sure, but they are not a clear and obvious threat at all.

As for why he retells the story, here is someone clearly breaking the rules. He knows you don't just talk to people in a restaurant and ask them for stuff. He knows you are supposed to wear shoes or that you don't wear a winter coat in the summer. He knows adults follow the rules and he probably thinks all adults are interchangeable. Yet here is an adult, one who should know better, who is breaking a ton of rules. Why? IS that an option? That's why I think a suitable-for-4 explanation is that the person simply cannot follow the rules, just as some people cannot walk. You can acknowledge which societal norms are being broken and reaffirm your commitment to those norms, while at the same time talking about how to help people who have a problem, to the limit of your abilities. (You wouldn't try to set a broken leg on the street but you might help change a stranger's flat tire.)

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    Many homeless wind up in that state through sheer misfortune (bad job market, layoffs, physical health problems, etc.), so "in the long run [not being able to follow our rules] can lead to not being able to work" is frequently the reverse of what actually happened (i.e. not being able to work is what leads to not being able to follow our rules). I understand from a comment on another answer here that you are referring specifically to Vancouver, but that isn't clear from the context of this answer. Nor does it seem appropriate to me to omit that clarification from the explanation to the child.
    – user420
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 18:19

He might have known for the first time that some people cannot take getting food when they want for granted. He may want to know why. It does create some kind of insecurity in the child's mind when he/she sees such a thing for the first time, since till that time he is taking for granted that everyone gets food/home/toys when one wants.

A good way to build children's mentality about this is to teach them the importance of earning, education.. We tell our child that because these people did not study they cannot enter into an office and work, they do not understand the work there. Hence it is important to study in the childhood.

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    No, I'm not going to scare him into being a good student with the threat of poverty. And I'm not going to promote middle-class myths about the source of poverty in our society either.
    – Septagon
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 15:52
  • Homelessness in some countries may be a simple fact of "you didn't get educated, no one will care for you." But in Vancouver there is a safety net. The people on the street cannot or will not live according to the rules that would qualify them for it. Mentally healthy people who just can't find a job don't end up on the street. So in the specific geography @SevenSidedDie identified, your answer is not useful to the child. The truth, though, is something a four year old probably can't understand yet.
    – Chrys
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 12:49
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    @Chrys The safety net still has holes. You can still end up on the street simply by not being able to find a job, especially if you don't have nearby friends or family to catch you. And I'm still not going to scare him into being a good student with the spectre of poverty.
    – Septagon
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 16:39
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    @Chrys I'm not sure how intimately familiar you are with the Vancouver homelessness programs (for all I know you work directly with the shelters), but are you quite certain that the safety net is 100% effective? While the wikipedia article is quite dated, it would be truly suprising for me to see a metropolitan area completely solve all involuntary homelessness (my wife is a homelessness advocate who is active on both the local and national level in the U.S., so I am somewhat familiar with the general statistics and systems).
    – user420
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 18:23
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    the big differences are first that in Canada you are unlikely to be bankrupted by health care costs, and second that people move west until they arrive in Vancouver - if they find a job along the way they stay there - so the influx into the city causes a different collection of people than you see on the street in Halifax or Ottawa.
    – Chrys
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:42

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