Teach A Man To Fish

Posted: January 27, 2009 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Morality

Although I’m guessing, I would be willing to say that most folks seldom think about homelessness – at least, not on a conscious level.

If or when they do, it’s probably because they notice someone who is homeless. It may be that they’ve been approached by someone asking for spare change. Perhaps they happen to see someone standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign. Or possibly they might be faced with finding themselves without a place to live. Other than that, homelessness is something which happens to someone else – and therefore, not of any major importance to many folks.  

The drawbacks of not recognizing homelessness as an important social issue, is that it de-humanizes our fellow human beings; folks who are members of our own community. Subsequently, minimal effort is put forth for finding effective ways of helping – and encouraging – the homeless in our communities. Moreover, it creates societal barriers which are difficult for the homeless to get past. It also reinforces negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately – for our nation’s homeless – they are most often judged by their physical appearance. Their less than freshly laundered clothing; their need to carry around all of their worldly possessions; their "loitering" in public places; and our assumptions that they lack the desire for a better life – all of these things are visual detriments.

To be sure, there are those homeless who are indeed unsavory characters – but the same could also be said of many housed folks. Simply reading through the headlines is proof enough of that.

So why is it that, as a society, we tend to think less of persons who are homeless? Why is it that we seldom recognize them as being equal to ourselves?

As I read various online news articles about homelessness, many of the comments left by other readers are derogatory. A number of them contain nothing more than hateful words. The homeless are blamed for their current situation; they are called bums, categorized as being lazy or worthless. Some of the comments make sweeping statements accusing them of preferring to be homeless. I’ve even seen comments which advocate placing the homeless in "work camps" and forcing them to work for their sustenance.

All of this brings me back to the questions: why do we tend to less of the homeless? Why is it that we seldom recognize them as being equal to ourselves?

Could it be that we consider them to be less intelligent than ourselves? Or, perhaps we believe that we are somehow of a higher moral caliber than they. Or, could it be that we are inwardly afraid that we might find ourselves in the same situation?

Let’s face it: in today’s current economic climate, so many Americans are only one or two paychecks away from finding themselves without a roof over their heads. All it would take is a small interruption in the income, and the downward spiral into homelessness would begin. Not exactly a comforting thought, is it?

Perhaps we look down on the homeless because we feel a sense of guilt. We know that we ought to be doing something to help but we don’t. Then, in order to absolve ourselves, we lay the blame solely on their shoulders.

Admittedly, there are those who have caused their own homelessness. Alcoholism, substance abuse, gambling addictions, psychological or emotional disabilities – to name a few – are indeed a cause for some folks becoming homeless. However, there are many who have found themselves without a home due to unforeseen circumstances beyond their control.

Regardless of why a person finds themselves homeless, they are nonetheless our fellow human beings. That, in itself, is reason enough for us to be compassionate toward them.

I’ll admit there are those homeless who do not want to be helped. They are content to live on the fringes of society.

But what of those who long desperately to find a way back into the mainstream community? Aren’t we obligated by our own humanity to seek a way to provide them with every opportunity to do so?

I’m not saying that everything needs to be handed to them on the proverbial silver platter. But, we do need to offer them more than just a meal and a bed.

I’ve heard folks postulate the adage, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for today. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime," as a "model" for helping the homeless.

While that may seem like the most viable approach, we have to keep in mind that it would only a first step. It does no good to teach a man to fish if he doesn’t have the wherewithal to obtain his own rod and reel or if there is no place where he can fish.

It also does no good for us to take the first step and then suddenly stop. But, it seems to me that’s been our national approach to homelessness. We make a strong start but do not follow through.

If we want to end homelessness in our nation, there are quite a number of additional "steps" we must take if we expect to reach the final "destination."

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