The Homeless Man at Breakfast

by Abby on December 7, 2017

“Enough with the homeless man! Sit down and eat your yogurt parfait!” You know your parenting has gone awry if you find yourself hissing these words at your 8yo son in Panera, as I did one recent Saturday morning. Let me explain.

Our family had decided to go out to breakfast. A rare occurrence, since I prefer to drink my coffee at home in my bathrobe, not get all gussied up with pants and lip gloss to stand in line with a bunch of strangers. Anyway, there we were, enjoying our bagels and beverages. Riley was seated facing the window, where a homeless man was waiting by the entrance, asking passersby for spare change.

Homeless men in Baltimore

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scene in our city. Both of my sons have big hearts and lots of questions. A few I get on the regular: “Mommy, what does that man’s sign say? Why is he homeless? Why can’t he just go and live with his parents? Can I give him my chips/juice box/half-eaten bag of dino fruit snacks?” Sometimes we give someone an (unopened) snack or a dollar, but of course, it’s not possible to help everyone.

Sometimes, if I have the energy, I will launch into a long, confusing lecture on systemic poverty, affordable housing, and charitable organizations. This goes over about as well as you’d expect with two boys who live in a safe, loving home with unlimited access to toilet paper, pretzels, and Wifi. Where the fridge and dresser drawers are never empty, thanks to a Grocery Fairy and a Laundry Fairy!

On the one hand, I love that my son is worried about this homeless man outside Panera and wants to help him. On the other hand, it consumed our ENTIRE family breakfast.

“Can we give him some money, Mommy?”

“How about some food,” suggests Dad.

“OK! Can I go give him my bagel?”

“That’s stupid, Riley. He won’t eat it,” says Big Brother helpfully.

“I don’t think he wants your leftovers, buddy. We’ll get him something on the way out.”

“Look, he has 4 coffees now. People are giving him drinks.”

“That’s nice. See? People want to help.”

“Is that a policeman? What’s he doing? Is he telling that man to leave? Ooh, look, he’s doing a dance now!”

The jaded part of me who’s lived in Baltimore for 20 years—yes, the setting of “The Wire”—thinks, that’s not a dance, that’s what’s known as the “heroin lean,” son. Then the non-jaded part of me is immediately appalled that I know that and that I’m assuming the man is on drugs. This is followed by a shame spiral because I am raising children who already know what junkies, weed, and police brutality are, not to mention way more kinds of weapons than they’d know from just watching the Power Rangers.

Can you see why I prefer having breakfast at home?

In the direction I was facing at our table, though, I had a different perspective. I could see a line of people of just about every race and ethnicity, young and old, able-bodied and in wheelchairs. People were holding the door for one another, letting people go ahead of them in line, chatting with strangers about knee surgery: “Oh, you lookin’ good, honey! I had it last year. Just keep doing your exercises!”

We finished our breakfast and got up to buy another bagel to go. Riley was all set to give it to the homeless man, but outside the door we discovered he was gone. “I was looking for him, too,” said a woman next to us. “I had a bag of clothes in the car I wanted to give him.” People want to help.

Always the mom looking for a Teachable Moment, I said to my son, “You know, if you want to help there are other ways. One of your classmates is collecting pajamas to donate to a homeless shelter. Want to go pick some out?” I was so pleased with myself for thinking of this. It’s the perfect opportunity. Riley LOVES pajamas. He changes into them the second he gets home from anywhere, at any time of day. He owns more PJs than Hugh Hefner, R.I.P.

“Nah. You can, though.” And just like that, his altruism has passed. Giving a bagel to a dancing homeless man is one thing. Going clothes shopping with your mom for some anonymous person is quite another.

I used to want to avoid unpleasantness of any kind, any reminder of pain or suffering. I still want to shield my kids from it, even if that’s not possible or advisable. I struggle with how to talk about tough subjects like homelessness, the self-consciousness of doing the wrong thing or not doing enough, and the despair of knowing I can’t solve it.

What my kids and I can do, however, is acknowledge it instead of turning away. To the homeless man outside Panera: We see you. You matter. We want to help.

P.S. I did buy some pajamas to donate. Any excuse to pick out cute footies in toddler sizes!

P.P.S. Parenting is exhausting. You don’t get Saturdays off.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacy B December 7, 2017 at 3:52 pm

Good parenting. Relevant conversations with kids. #highfive

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Abby December 8, 2017 at 7:43 am

Thanks, Stacy. 😊

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Angie December 7, 2017 at 7:46 pm

“More PJs than Hugh Heffner, RIP.” Not the point, but so funny. I shared this. Good job, my friend.

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Abby December 8, 2017 at 7:44 am

Thanks, Angie. You know I use humor to deflect anything that gets too real. 😉

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