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Parents and teachers are talking to kids about the homelessness they witness

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In some cities, homelessness has become a much more visible problem. That's left some parents and teachers trying to figure out how to talk to children about the people they see living on the streets, as Katia Riddle reports from Portland, Ore.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: For third graders at the Cathedral School, witnessing homelessness is part of daily life.

INGRID TRACHTENBARG: I want you to think about your own journeys into school today.

RIDDLE: Teacher Ingrid Trachtenbarg is talking to her students on a recent morning.

TRACHTENBARG: Did you witness anyone sleeping outside?

RIDDLE: Every child raises their hand. This private Catholic school is downtown. Unsheltered people wander by the playground regularly. Sometimes they're distressed and in crisis. Trachtenbarg encourages candor in these conversations. Here's her student Florence Bauer.

FLORENCE BAUER: On my way home, I go under the bridge. And under the bridge, there's this, like, ginormous homeless camp, and there's, like, a bunch of tents and things. When you walk up to those people, they - like, you don't know them, and sometimes they can be, like, scarier than other people.

TRACHTENBARG: So we're called, as Catholics, to look at those who are poor as the same as each and every one of us. And like Flo said, that's kind of scary, right?

RIDDLE: Trachtenbarg says when her students feel safe and heard, they can develop empathy, even for people who might scare them.

TRACHTENBARG: So let's think - let's pivot to, what can we do? What are we called to do as Catholics and, really, as good people?

SIMON BURKE: You should help them...

RIDDLE: That was student Simon Burke.

SIMON: ...Because you don't need more stuff. They actually need stuff because they don't even have a roof over their head.

RIDDLE: Trachtenbarg also tries to show her students how to take initiative on this issue.

TRACHTENBARG: And then we'll make our way to the table to start making our sack lunches.

RIDDLE: After their discussion, the class prepares food for homeless people. The Blanchet House is a few miles away. The class will donate their sandwiches here to help feed people like Vanessa Snick.

VANESSA SNICK: Being homeless is hard enough because it takes you out of the real world.

RIDDLE: Snick is eating lunch at the Blanchet House on a recent day, holding her small dog on her lap. She's been homeless for nine years. She suggests the most important thing to remember when talking about and to homeless people - they're human.

SNICK: Sometimes I don't feel like a part of society. People have to understand that we're not here by choice, you know? And it's hard to get off the street.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: And then we've got pants on one side and some shirts and then a few socks and gloves.

RIDDLE: A volunteer helps people find clothing in another part of Blanchet House. Zale Leer picks some pants off the rack.

ZALE LEER: Rain pants. I needed those.

RIDDLE: Lehr has been on the street for close to a decade. Fundamentally, he wants the same things everyone else does.

LEER: I think people are actually just looking for, like, regularity - like, not being treated differently.

RIDDLE: Eye contact, a nod, a smile. Eighteen-year-old Brooke Plasse is a volunteer at Blanchet House. She remembers her first shift here.

BROOKE PLASSE: I just came home, and I felt like I was just so happy to have gone. It made me really - it was just - it filled me with joy, honestly.

RIDDLE: She wasn't always as comfortable around homeless people as she is now. She remembers a different experience from when she was much younger.

B PLASSE: I think I said to my mom - I was like, why is that man sitting there? Like, where's his house? Then I was really confused.

RIDDLE: Brooke's mom, Rachel Plasse, recalls a conversation with her young daughter about a homeless person, asking them to give money.

RACHEL PLASSE: I remember her debating and wondering why I wasn't.

RIDDLE: She didn't have an immediate answer.

R PLASSE: You know, they're looking for something. It says - they have a sign. It looks like they have a legitimate need. Why not give the money that way?

BETSY BROWN BRAUN: I say to parents more often than you could imagine in my sessions, do you love your child enough to allow them to be unhappy?

RIDDLE: Therapist Betsy Brown Braun wrote a parenting book called "Just Tell Me What To Say." Parents and teachers often want to shield their children from witnessing tragedy and hardship. But in cities like Portland, with the issue of homelessness, that's impossible. Braun says it's better to be direct.

BRAUN: Because your child learns that Mommy's going to answer my question. She's going to be honest. There's no question that's too bad to ask.

RIDDLE: A question like, how could someone become homeless? That's one Rachel Plasse had to field.

R PLASSE: You know, I would try to explain that circumstances led them there.

RIDDLE: Plasse says there are no clear answers. Still, she wouldn't have her kids unsee this problem.

R PLASSE: Because they shouldn't, you know, live in a space where they just think everything is wonderful and these problems aren't out there.

RIDDLE: Her daughter, Brooke Plasse, is now a senior in high school. The family started volunteering together to help homeless people. Now Brooke does it by herself.

B PLASSE: And I really - I feel inspired, you know, that - to make more of a difference because now I'm aware. I think without awareness, there's no change.

RIDDLE: She's become friendly with a number of the unhoused people she sees regularly.

B PLASSE: They have so much to tell me and have had such rich lives, and, like, we should listen. I don't think we listen enough.

RIDDLE: Of course, listening is not going to solve the deep structural problems around homelessness. But it's a start for these kids who will someday be the adults responsible for solutions.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle