Commentary: Teach a Person to Fish...

By Barb Mascio

       “My mother is remarried and has her own live; I never knew my father,” Janine replied when asked about her support system.  I was trying to figure out why this lovely young woman, along with 250-plus individuals eating breakfast one Saturday at Trinity Church on 22nd and Euclid, was there in the first place.

        What about your brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles, grandparents?  She smiled kindly at my naiveté and just shook her head.

         Consider how the family unit as well as the community support system have changed over the years.  Through most of human history, families and groups of families understood the absolute necessity of standing together:  heads of households, helpmates, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and so on.  They supported one another, making use of each individual’s strengths and together helping to strengthen their weaknesses.  Each member fully understood and fulfilled the responsibilities life asked of him or her.

       Those days are gone.  Many youths turn to gangs.  Fathers fail to feel responsible for the children they have helped to bring into our world. Grandparents are ignored and abandoned.  Aunts and uncles are scattered and uninterested.  Mothers have little in the way of mortal support, let alone financial support from anyone in the family.  Every child who grows up and then leaves a family unit such as this will most likely continue along the same lines.  Having no adults as living examples of how to live, how to manage difficulties, how to love, the family suffers the ultimate disaster: it no longer exists.

        Is it any wonder we have homeless mothers, fathers, children and grandparents?  In our city of Cleveland on any given night, we have 1,700 homeless persons seeking shelter.  Of this number, 31 percent are men and 69 percent are women or children.

        By losing the family unit as it once was, we’ve lost a valuable part of our society.  We’ve lost the mentors, the teachers, the helping hands, the encouragement, the unconditional love.

            One of my favorite rock groups, Arrested Development, wrote a song entitled “Give a Man a Fish.”  The lyrics state, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for the day.  If you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat forever.

          As a society, we have perfected the art of giving fishes. We have welfare, shelters, food banks, hunger centers and so forth, all designed to aid temporarily.  These programs have become the only way to survive.  We’ve lost the mentors , the teachers – we’ve lost the desire or the ability to teach how to fish.

         Being homeless is frightening.  Being homeless is degrading.  It’s also all encompassing.  It is being house-less, job-less, friend-less, family-less.  It is about being cold, tired, hungry.  It is about dependency on strangers, strangers who often are not all that tolerant of the struggle.

        There is no magic answer.  There is no one solution.  I for one refuse to believe that we as a community of families and churches of God will fail to overcome whatever obstacles there are to aid our homeless neighbors and prevent others from ever becoming homeless.  I do know that more fish won’t fix anything.  We need teachers.  We need people like you and me to reach out and get involved.

        When asked what he felt about the German race after his liberation from the Auschwitz concentration camp, Dr. Victor Frankl replied, “There consists in the world only two races.  The race of the indecent man.”  If you believe yourself to be a part of the decent race, I challenge you to act on your belief.  At the very least, I hope that the next time you pass by a homeless person you will open yourself up long enough to see the human being in front of you.

Published by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio May 1994 Issue 6