COMMUNITY RESPONSIBILITY:

On Faith and Fishing Rods
Baltimore's Homeless Advocates Stress Need for Direct Assistance and Personal Responsibility

by Paul Cané


Ronald Reagan enjoyed telling an audience that it's better to give a hungry man a fishing rod and teach him how to fish than to simply give him a fish outright. During his administration and those of his successors, however, the provision of those fishing rods has nearly always fallen to the private sector or charitable organizations.

Over the past 15 years, as homelessness has become a headline issue, groups assisting the homeless have struggled to develop plans to assist the homeless on a long-term basis while simultaneously working to meet their most immediate needs. They know a starving man has no need of a fishing rod and an addict will sell his lures for a rock as soon as he gets out of his fishing lesson. These groups know that desperate people need both help and hope, fish and fishing rods.

On January 13 a coalition of 60 agencies pooled their resources for the 1998 Opportunity Fair. For five hours dozens of support groups offered and coordinated their services for the homeless in the Baltimore Convention Center. This was the largest such event in the country, with nearly 3,500 homeless and poor people attending.

Robert Hess, president of Action for the Homeless and the Maryland Food Committee, two groups largely responsible for the Opportunity Fair, remarked, "This is one of the largest collaborative efforts between government, private sector, and non-profit agencies and could serve as a model for other large metropolitan areas."

The services offered provided an impressive view of the variety of the needs of the homeless and the number of programs available to help meet them. Besides the free lunch provided by the Maryland Food Committee and the free clothing from Saint Vincent de Paul's, the Opportunity Fair offered vaccinations, dental services, employment counseling, mental health counseling, housing referrals, free haircuts, legal advice, and many other services.

One of the great advantages of a setting like the Opportunity Fair is the ability of several agencies to coordinate their efforts in a relatively short time and without the logistical troubles associated with a large metropolitan area.

Take, for example, the case of an older man seeking advice at the legal services area. The man had been abruptly evicted from his apartment and was contemplating challenging his former landlord. As it turned out, the apartment was partially subsidized by the city and the landlord had been obligated to follow certain procedures prior to eviction. An attorney listened to the man and referred him to the housing booth, where his complaint was processed quickly.

This sort of shuffling between agencies could have taken days, even weeks, for a man with no phone, no transportation, and limited knowledge of the city's housing bureaucracy.

The coordination between the agencies was apparent in nearly every aspect of the fair, even in the medical screening area, where clients undergoing a head lice screening were asked if they'd like a ticket for a free haircut.

The homeless and poor people who attended the Opportunity Fair were open in their appreciation of the event. In the lobby of the Convention Center old friends caught up on the latest news. Children modeled their new used coats for their mothers. In the makeshift dining room families laughed together and patted their stomachs in an odd mockery of Thanksgiving Day.

But under this setting there flowed a current of caution, a sense that the attendees knew that, when the day was done, they would be leaving the Convention Center to go to the same shelter, the same friend's couch, or the same squatter's camp that they had left that morning. This illustrates the limited nature of the help that functions like the Opportunity Fair offer to the homeless. The services offered at the Fair, no matter how urgent, were largely ameliorative. A homeless child with a full stomach is still homeless. A crack addict with a new haircut is still an addict. To rely on a plethora of social services, no matter how well coordinated, is to deny the deeply personal struggle for self respect that homeless people face each day.

`UNDER THE BRIDGE"

This separate aspect of homelessness, the individual nature of the trials faced by the homeless population, was presented at another event sponsored by Action for the Homeless in January. On January 22 Action for the Homeless hosted an exclusive screening of "Under the Bridge," an award-winning film by Charles Weinstein, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

A reception was held prior to the screening with Mr. Weinstein, "Homicide" star Kyle Secor, and Melissa Leo, the "Homicide" alumnus who starred in the film. Proceeds from the screening went to Action for the Homeless, and the evening concluded with a panel discussion led by WJHU's Marc Steiner.

"Under the Bridge" tells the story of eight-year-old Eddie, a runaway from a Brooklyn orphanage who is grudgingly adopted by a group of homeless people squatting in a deserted factory called "Hellhole." This commune includes Kathy, a heroin addict and prostitute; John, the alcoholic "caretaker" of the property; Sammy, an urban fisherman and the group's resident gourmand; and Billy, a crack-addicted self-proclaimed ladies man.

As Eddie follows each character through the struggles and joys of their daily lives, the audience begins to see that the abusive lifestyles of Hellhole's residents are, in part, responsible for their plight. The film avoids the pat assignation of blame to society, and in some respects, celebrates the independence and resourcefulness of the characters.

"I wanted to show people who are homeless, not `homeless people'," Mr. Weinstein said after the screening. "We relate to them as people because we recognize their compassion for Eddie and for each other."

The film concludes with the disintegration of the Hellhole commune as each character meets a fate that takes them away from the group. Some of these ends are uplifting, some discouraging, and some merely inevitable. The common thread throughout these stories is the deeply personal nature of each character's demons and the need for the individual to decide if and when to face them. Ms. Leo, whose character finally confronts her heroin addiction in the film, elaborated on this in the discussion following the film.

"There has to be some sort of spark within the individual, some desire to move beyond the sense of powerlessness," Ms. Leo said, "The programs have to be there, but the spark has to come from the individual person."

This insight was reinforced by two panelists who know whereof they speak. Michelle Banks and Ramone Basabe, both homeless and addicted for years, told their stories of destitution, hopelessness, and eventual recovery. The audience listened closely as Mr. Basabe spoke eloquently about leaving his friends and family behind for a life of going from fix to fix. Mr. Basabe spoke with great admiration for the Baltimore clinic that helped him beat his addiction, but emphasized the individual responsibilities he had to take on during his recovery.

"What are you going to do when someone asks about the two year blank on your résumé?" he asked, "You have to figure that out on your own."

Ms. Banks was equally emphatic about the need for accepting responsibility as an integral part of escaping homelessness. Reflecting on the similarities between herself and the character of Kathy, she expressed her sympathy for those still struggling with addiction, but added that "You're not going to get out until you're ready to get out." To underscore this she explained that after two years on methadone maintenance, she decided in December to leave that last crutch behind and will be returning to college in the spring. "The methadone helped me get back on my feet," she said, "but it's self-respect that's making me quit the methadone and get back to school."

These two remarkable people illustrate in a unique way the twin obstacles to overcoming homelessness. On one hand the chronically homeless will not become productive members of society without coordinated assistance efforts like the Opportunity Fair or the clinic programs that helped Mr. Basabe and Ms. Banks. On the other hand, a year's worth of Opportunity Fairs cannot help someone who is not interested in a future beyond the next buzz, and that hope for the future must come, at least partly, from within.

Perhaps a hungry man would benefit more from a fishing rod than a fish dinner, but the homeless man you see on the corner is not simply hungry. He is disillusioned, desperate, and bereft of hope. If he finds it in himself to put faith in his future, these January events showed that, in Baltimore, he can find someone to help him nurture that faith.


When not writing, Paul Cané, a Mt. Washington resident who holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan, bakes bread at the Big Sky Bakery.


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This story was published on February 4, 1998.