Last week, after months of separation, I read my new picture book I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me to my five-year-old granddaughter Mila. It’s a story about a young boy’s special connection with a man named Pete, who is experiencing homelessness. Most people rush past Pete without a second look, but the boy notices his big smile and beautiful drawings.
Mila lives in regional Queensland and has never been to a city; she’s never seen a person living on the streets. As I read, I watched her process this new information. She has a kind and generous heart, and as expected, her questions came at me like little darts pricking my conscience;
‘Why doesn’t Pete have a home?’
‘Will someone build one?’
And because in a five-year old’s world, books are magical, and transformative, she asked,
‘Can you write another book, where Pete gets a house, and his dog has a garden?’
But I can’t write that book. I explained to Mila in my own way that change may come, but that right now there are a lot of people without a home. We talked about what a home is, because it’s not just four walls; it’s your safe place. The truth is hard-edged; there are no unicorn solutions for homelessness – but standing by and doing nothing isn’t an option. I am hopeful that by opening up conversations in homes, schools and communities, seeds of change will be sewn in small minds.
For 20 years I worked as a counsellor with children and families, and although I’ve now retired, their stories stay with me.
Inspiration for this book came from many places. For 20 years I worked as a counsellor with children and families, and although I’ve now retired, their stories stay with me. Children see the world in such a different way to adults. They are naturally open, compassionate and free of judgement. They also love a good story, and often by telling stories I was able to help them feel less anxious about the future; more hopeful and empowered to make changes.
Adults often shy away from talking to children about difficult issues in our society, even when they want to have these conversations. I wish I had a dollar for every time a parent said to me, "How do I tell the kids we’re getting divorced/grandpa’s going to die/I’m depressed?".
My answer was always the same: "Be direct; be present; be compassionate, and kind. Above all, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers."
‘Be direct; be present; be compassionate, and kind. Above all, don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers.’
This was my start point for writing about homelessness. I wanted to write a book that allowed parents and caregivers to talk about homelessness in a way that kids could understand. It took a long time, and many drafts. I thought, what if I was walking down a city street holding a child’s hand, how would they see Pete?
What would I see? What would I say?
Ask yourself; as an adult do you look away? Do you notice? When you notice, how does it feel inside? If your child asks about someone sleeping in a doorway, what do you say?
In my professional life I met people from many different backgrounds who had experienced homelessness, who were experiencing it or who were facing the threat of it. There was no common thread. I did my best to help where I could, but I’d never known until recently that homelessness had affected my own family in a pivotal way.
My great-great grandmother Martha became homeless during the 1870 smallpox epidemic in London.
My great-great grandmother Martha became homeless during the 1870 smallpox epidemic in London. She was a young single woman working as a servant when she became pregnant with my great grandfather George. Consequently, Martha lost her job, and therefore, her home. She gave birth to George in the Chelsea Workhouse during a time of great chaos and disease, dying five weeks later of smallpox. I cannot imagine the horror of her last few weeks of life or the desperation of the orphaned child she left behind.
In some small way I hope I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me helps children understand that homelessness exists right here in Australia. I hope it helps parents discuss, in an age appropriate way, this difficult and emotionally loaded subject. Thanks to Evie Barrow’s beautiful illustrations this book now makes me cry every time I read it. Mila especially liked the way the first and last pages show a quilted blanket; we hope you can see how it wraps the book with warmth from all our hearts.
Maggie Hutchings writes stories with heart and soul for children and adults. Her latest book is I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me, out 28 July through Affirm Press.
Catch up with season 3 of SBS documentary Filthy Rich and Homeless. All episodes are available, for free, on On Demand.