I am 4, maybe 5 years old.
We are living in central France. My father loves to take Sunday drives to Belgium, to the monastery, D’Orval, where the Trappist monks make his favourite beer.
I remember it is a beautiful place, this D’Orval. Serene. Tranquil. Surrounded by fields of hops and wheat. Filled with gardens of herbs and vegetables and flowers. Even though visitors were only allowed in certain places, I like to think I skipped amongst the flowers. It was something I loved to do.
I think we must have been returning from D’Orval the day my family forgot me at a gas station. They were down the road only a couple of minutes when they realized there was an unusual silence in the car. I imagine someone asked, “What’s that silence?” Followed by, “Louise, why are you so quiet?” Followed by a startled, “Where’s Louise?”
They turned around immediately at that point. Though I’m sure my siblings may have suggested leaving me behind, my mother would have worried all the way back to where they found me. I was standing by one of the gas pumps with tears rolling down my cheeks. The most likely explanation is I had skipped off somewhere to check out a flower, a flying leaf, a piece of interesting grass… When I returned from my adventures, my family was gone and I was alone.
In real time, being left behind that day may only have been a few minutes. In my child’s mind, it felt like a lifetime.
It is one of the challenges of homelessness for children. Everything feels like a lifetime. And losing all your belongings, your special places, your own room and toys, has life time impacts.
At Inn from the Cold where I work, helping children understand and cope with the trauma of homelessness is integral to the work we do of providing children and their families shelter, sanctuary and healing.
We know that the longer homelessness lasts, the greater the impact on adults. The same is exponentially true for children.
To offset the trauma, early childhood development practitioners work with children to help them develop healthy coping skills that will serve them well, at the shelter and throughout their lives. They use play and art therapy and a host of programs and practices designed to engage children in understanding and identifying their emotions, and providing them practical tools to help them find healthy ways to express them.
No one wants their child to feel lost, frightened, confused. No one wants their child to feel the trauma of homelessness. Yet, it happens. In the past 6 months at the Inn, over 250 children have stayed under our roof. As an emergency family shelter, we do everything we can to make it feel like a welcoming, safe, environment.
But it isn’t home.
And so, we must work even harder to help the children learn healthy ways to weather life’s storms as we work with their parents to guide them on their journey home. And once home, we must continue to support the children and their families to ensure homelessness does not repeat itself in their lives.
When I was 4 or 5, I got left behind at a gas station. It was just a few moments of trauma, but the ripple effect of that moment set up a refrain in my life that sometimes caused me to feel like I was not wanted, did not belong or fit in. I am lucky. I have had access to the resources and the knowledge on how to overcome those feelings so that I can be a change-maker in the world today.
Imagine the trauma of homelessness on a four or five year old. Imagine the stories they will create in their fragile minds as they try to understand what is happening to them, their siblings, their parents.
Imagine if, we did nothing.
The future would not be changed for the better and the likelihood of their being homeless as adults would grow with them as they journey into adulthood.
We can end child and family homelessness. It takes all of us working together to ensure families have access to the right resources at the right time to help them navigate life’s storms and find their way back home.
We can’t all work at a shelter, but we can all contribute our time, donate our treasures and offer our talents to help make homelessness a short-lived experience for every child who enters a shelter’s doors.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child.
It takes an entire community to raise a family out of poverty and homelessness.
We can be that village. We can be that community.