Why Doesn’t Everyone Have a Home?

This story is about winter. It’s also about how our children’s questions can nudge us in positive directions.

We live in the cold far south of Australia, but our family is lucky to be able to get cozy by the fire. We can put on our winter coats and brave the icy winds that make their way across the Southern Ocean from Antarctica and seem to blow right through you, and we can curl up in our warm beds and sleep soundly through these dark, chilly nights.

As a child, when the weather got cold I would think about the animals. I worried about all the horses and cows in paddocks without shelter, birds huddled together to keep warm, and I felt real concern for for them. As an adult, I can’t help but wonder about the people who don’t have shelter, those very vulnerable members of our communities who sleep rough. I can’t imagine their discomfort.

Back in April I cleared out the chldren’s wardrobes, making a pile of outgrown things to give away or donate to charity. I packed away summer dresses and shorts, brought back last year’s woolies and coats, and assessed what winter things the kids needed – pyjamas, socks, gloves, etc… I found an old coat of Stephen’s which he hadn’t worn for about five years. A long, formal, double breasted woollen overcoat, it had been around for perhaps 15 years (it predates me in his life). We discussed whether he had any further use for it, and whether it should go in the charity pile. We agreed that it might keep someone warm this winter and that this would be better than it hanging, unworn in the wardrobe for another year. So off it went, with the children’s old things, and I didn’t give it another thought.

Until…

Oesch and I were headed for the library one cold morning, having dropped Doots off at kinder. The library doesn’t open until 9.30 so we warmed up with a coffee and babycino at a cafe up the street. As we left the cafe, wrapped in our winter coats and giggling as we watched our breath form little clouds in front of our faces, a man walked past, wearing Stephen’s coat. I’d have recognised those lapels anywhere. We followed him down the street and into the library. Tailored navy overcoat aside, he looked all worn out, he looked homeless. It occurred to me that the library would be a haven for people without a home. It’s warm, you don’t have to buy anything, you can read the paper, a book, use a computer or find a quiet corner and sit with your thoughts.

That night over dinner I told Stephen about how we’d spotted the coat. It didn’t occur to me that Doots was listening – but of course she was. A couple of days later she asked…

Mum, why doesn’t everyone have a home?

Over a couple of days we talked, I answered her questions, and she told me how it made her feel sad to think about people sleeping outside on cold nights. She drew a picture – ‘it’s a big house for homeless people to all live in together – there’s a sign with a sad person on it and everyone inside is happy’.

Stephen is a committee member of a not-for-profit homeless men’s shelter, and we give money every year to charities but I realised that we needed to be making a practical contribution that would make sense to an almost-five-year-old, something that she could participate in. I found a small organisation which distributes hot food and drinks, blankets, sleeping bags, toiletries and warm clothing to those in need on Hobart’s streets every weekend. They receive no government funding and rely on donations. The coordinator said they would be thrilled to accept home made soup, and baked goods like cakes, slices, biscuits, sausage rolls, etc. She didn’t need to say any more.

The children and I shopped together for ingredients for soup. Doots nominated Alphabet Soup, which I cunningly transformed into a hearty and nourishing minestrone, made with homemade stock, left-over roast pork, chick peas and lots of fresh vegetables…. finished with some tiny pasta alphabet shapes and stirred with a whole lotta love.

Next week we’ll make cake, and we have some friends who are keen to join in on a regular basis. I think it’s been a great way for Doots to understand that she can be an active agent in the world – that if something is not right, she can follow her instincts and find a way to help, regardless of how small it might seem. Minestrone is not going to solve the complex problem of homelessness, but last Friday night a few hungry bellies were filled with steaming mugfuls of goodness, thanks to my little girl’s big concerns.

Has your child asked any ‘big’ questions recently?

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20 Comments

  1. What a fantastic post! You’re a wonderful storyteller.

    Sometimes it can be hard to come up with ways to teach small children that they can make a difference in the world. What a beautifully simple act to do together! It’s also amazing that you saw your husband’s coat on a man after donating it. That had to feel fantastic! Often times donating clothing can feel pretty detached; you know you are doing something good, but never really see it if you aren’t a volunteer, handing the items out. Being able to see an old coat from your home now keeping a homeless man warm is wonderful. πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, it was a jaw dropping moment – seeing that coat on someone’s back.

  2. I’m too teary to type. Your girl has a heart as big as that little island you call home. Bless her little cotton socks. This is just wonderful. x

    1. Hi Karen,
      I must admit, watching her sense of empathy growing in this way is lovely. It’s like watching a flower blooming – from the inward-looking, egocentric toddler, to a compassionate girl with a developing sense of social justice.

  3. Oh, I just love everything about this post. What a sweet little girl, and a wonderful way to help other people as a family. I hope to follow your example, very soon. Thank you!

    1. Hi Jane, I’m sure your boys would make the most awesome superhero soup!

  4. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful post!

    Growing up in New York City homelessness is a visible part of life in the city. Living in Australia for 12+ years I found homelessness to be very hidden and only came across it in person in a few parts of Sydney (and even more rarely here in Brisbane). I have been saying for years that I wanted to get involved with this issue locally (I did back home) and you have spurred me on to investigate how I can help here. Thank you for that.

    1. Hi Deb,
      The homeless are quite hidden here in Hobart too, but apparently the volunteers who work on the van serve around 40 people a night – some of whom have a roof over their heads but are struggling to put food on the table, some camp in the bushland near town, some sleep rough under bridges and by the waterfront. Sometimes parents turn up with hungry children. I can’t imagine what that must be like.

  5. I love, love, love this post! I prayed at the beginning of this year that we would be shown more and more ways to help others as a family, especially those in need. Boy did we get a BIG opportunity to help with the floods kicking off our year in Brissy. There are so many ways for kids to help now and I just love your way of getting the kids involved. You know for years I dreamt of a grand opportunity for the homeless in Brisbane. Many years ago the police barracks at the top of Milton became vacant and so for years they were just left to get broken down and vandalised. Sadly they were left too long but then someone did something with them and they have become a place for those with money to go and enjoy movies and restaurants. The buildings were absolutely perfect for the homeless, big buildings with dorm rooms (I would imagine), a place to shelter, to eat, have a shower. Wish I’d spoke up. Thanks for inspiring today, Sarah.

    1. I imagine in Brisbane this year you’ll have been surrounded by people who need a helping hand. I’d like to find other ways for us to help in our community too. I’m really thankful that Doots gave me this nudge, because while I feel outrage and compassion, to be honest, I don’t often act on those feelings. She’s taught me a valuable lesson πŸ™‚

  6. You’ve made me cry πŸ™‚ What a beautiful story.

  7. Love it. I’ve shared this post on my Facebook page, because one of my friends who is an events designer was stressing over a horrible client who insisted she would have to move about 100 homeless people on the night, as they sleep in front of the building… and wouldn’t listen to reason… maybe she can make them soup…

    Beautiful child!

    1. Aah, when two urban worlds meet… Maybe she could make them soup, and invite them to the party lol.

  8. Such a sweet story – and such an important life lesson for our children to learn.
    We had a similar conversation when my husband spoke of someone who was spending the night sleeping outside in the cold. A few weeks later at dinner, with no context, our five year old asked if that man was still sleeping outside because it was going to rain tonight and what would be do if he got wet? Did he have a suitcase for his clothes or would they get wet too – and on it went from there. Where are his family? Does he have a pet to keep him company?
    Clearly it got her thinking.
    The next day we cleared out clothes and toys to donate to people who have less than us “Like the man sleeping outside’ piped up the small person.

    1. Hi Karen, that sounds so very much like the way conversations go in our house! They seem to think about things for a while, and then the questions come gushing out all at once, and you realise they’ve really been trying to process things.

  9. Oh that me get all teary eyed, you do such wonderful and meaningful things with your kids Sarah.
    My own little Miss almost-4 is also starting to understand a little about poverty… her kindy had a fundraiser for their sister school in Burundi, and the kids all learnt about “the poor children” there who don’t have toys or lots of food. At a special lunch at kindy they served the kids plain rice which they ate with their hands. That week at home we had lots of discussions about “poor children” who didn’t have knives and forks (!), who didn’t have books and toys, and who only ate rice. Then Miss 3 says, all solemnly, “the poor children only eat rice…. And Winnie the Pooh only eats honey”. I tried so hard not to laugh. She is grappling to understand and I can see her little brain ticking over. We’ll just keep talking…

    I love that you are making soup and cakes. Imagine the smile a lolly decorated kiddy cupcake could bring to someones day?

  10. Just gorgeous πŸ™‚ Its a complex problem indeed but I bet the people who got that soup were grateful for the small things. Your small thing πŸ™‚

  11. Oh, Sarah. You have such a huge heart. We’ll have to discuss this over a mug of something warm at our *new house* very soon – I’d love to help out as well! J x

  12. Beautiful, moving, inspiring story from your life. Thanks for sharing it with us. I look forward to visiting your blog now too.

  13. Such a lovely post, Sarah, and I hope we can follow in your family’s example in our own way too x

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