I’ve written before about Fr. Clair Bourdereaux, a Franciscan priest who was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria in 1976. He remained there for 19 years, until his death in January 1995. Fr. Clair had all the qualities of a great counselor. He was holy, smart, wise, gentle, diplomatic, compassionate, and understanding. He had the unique ability to connect with people on their level and set them on a path toward holiness and happiness.
There was a time during the 1980s when Georgette and I sought out Fr. Clair’s advice and counsel. At one of our meetings, he told us about what he called “the two greatest desires.” He said that every man has one desire that stands far above all the other desires — the desire to be respected, and every woman has one desire that stands far above all the other desires — the desire to love and to be loved.
I thought about Fr. Clair last week after I had an experience with one of the homeless people who roams around downtown and solicits money from other people.
My office is about three blocks from Sacred Heart Church. On most days during the week, I walk to daily Mass, which begins at 12:05 pm. Georgette usually joins me, and we are able to have lunch together after Mass about once a week. It’s a great way for us to break up our day, while receiving the spiritual boost we need to keep our marriage fresh and deal with the issues and problems that come up in our lives.
My experience with homeless people dates back to my law school years. I attended Saint Louis University School of Law from 1979 to 1982. There was a McDonald’s restaurant that was about six blocks from the school. The area around the McDonald’s restaurant was run down, and it was not uncommon to run into one or more homeless people whenever I stopped at McDonald’s for something to eat.
When the homeless people would ask for money, they would usually say they needed the money to buy food. I knew they weren’t going to use the money for food. It was common knowledge that they solicited money so they could use it to purchase alcohol or drugs. Instead of giving them money I always offered to buy them a meal.
The response I usually got was, “I’m not hungry right now. Can you give me money so I can eat later today?” Most of the time, they refused to go into the restaurant with me and order food. When that occurred, I refused to give them money. The homeless people who were willing to go into McDonald’s with me were allowed to order whatever they wanted. When they got their food, they always left the restaurant with their bag of food. They never sat down inside to eat.
When I opened my law practice in January 1983, I began encountering homeless people when I walked to daily Mass at Sacred Heart Church. Most of them would say they needed money for bus fare. They would usually ask for a dime or quarter, knowing that if I was going to give them money, I would probably pull out a dollar or more for them.
The number of homeless people in Peoria has dramatically increased since I started my law practice in 1983. One reason for this is because most of them are mentally ill and are incapable of holding a job or managing their lives. They are also a danger to society. If you are over the age of 40, you may remember the state-funded Zeller Mental Health Center (“Zeller Center”), which was on North University Street in Peoria. The Zeller Center included a few large buildings that housed people who had mental health problems. They were unable to function on their own and were a danger to themselves and to others.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the State of Illinois slashed more than $80 million from the state-funded mental health programs, which resulted in the closing of most of the mental health facilities in Illinois. Zeller Center was closed in 2002. After the mental health centers in Illinois were closed, mentally challenged people who needed help had nowhere to go.
Today, many of the people who would be committed to a mental health facility if one were available are either in jail or living under a bridge, on the streets, or anywhere else they can find to set up a makeshift camp. As you would expect, over the years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people who solicit money from people in downtown Peoria.
Last fall, I got tired of responding to the requests for money from homeless people who routinely approached me while I was walking to church. I decided I was no longer going to verbally respond to any requests for money. From then on, whenever I was approached for money, I kept walking and acted as though I didn’t see them or hear what they said. In my mind, I had no obligation to talk to them or respond to their requests because the only reason they were talking to me was to solicit money.
When I stopped responding to their requests, most of them would call out to me a second time because they thought I didn’t hear them. After realizing that I was not going to answer their questions, they usually walked away and approached their next target.
But there is always at least one exception to the rule.
For at least the past five years, there has been a homeless man who appears in downtown Peoria every spring — they hibernate in the winter — and hangs out in a small plaza across the street from my office. He’s a husky guy who is actually somewhat charming. When he approaches someone, he always talks loud and starts out by saying, “Hey, man, I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?” If you answer his question, he tries to engage you in a conversation, which causes you to feel sorry for him and give him money.
Until last month, every time he saw me he would say the same thing, “Hey, man, I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?” My response was always, I’m doing the same as the last time you saw me. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out today. I never stopped to talk to him. I always kept walking while I responded to his question. He would then look for someone else to start a conversation with.
Last month, when I saw him for the first time this year, he yelled out his famous opening line, “Hey, man, I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?” I acted as though I didn’t see or hear him, and I continued to walk toward the doors of the building that I always cut through on my way to Sacred Heart Church. There were several people in the area, but that didn’t stop him from following me and shouting, “Hey man, I’m talking to you. I know you hear me. Why aren’t you willing to talk to me? Are you prejudiced? You’re prejudiced, aren’t you?”
I ignored him and continued to walk toward the doors of the building. He shouted louder, “You’re a racist. That’s why you won’t talk to me. You’re a racist!” By then, I was at the entrance of the building. After I opened the door and stepped inside, he stopped yelling. I said a prayer for him, which is what I always do when I’m approached by a homeless person who asks for money.
Last week, at around 5:30 pm, I left my office and got in my car to go pick something up. I returned to my office at around 6:15 pm. I parked my car next to the entrance door of my office building. When I got out of the car, I noticed a woman who was picking through the trash dumpster that is in a nearby parking lot.
As I was walking toward the door of the building, she yelled, “Sir?” I ignored her and continued to walk toward the door. She then shouted, “Sir, please don’t ignore me. I’m a person just like you. Please don’t ignore me.” I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash, so I can’t help you out.” She immediately shot back, “I wasn’t going to ask for cash. I was going to ask you if you had a cigarette!”
By then, I was at the entrance door. I put my key in the lock, opened the door, stepped inside the building, and closed the door behind me. I had heard that same line on several previous occasions when I had said the same thing to other homeless people and they had responded in the exact same way: “I wasn’t going to ask for cash. I was going to ask you if you had a cigarette!” It’s almost as if they all had a meeting and shared the same script, so they would know what to say to people who cut them off and responded the way I had responded.
After I was in the building, I said a prayer for the homeless lady. That’s when I thought of Fr. Claire. I had a flashback to the time my wife and I met with him and he told us about the two greatest desires. I immediately knew what I needed to do the next time I was approached for money by a homeless person.
I am no longer going to ignore the men and women who approach me for money. I am going to continue to walk away from them and keep my distance, but from now on, I’m going to do my best to show the men some respect and the woman some love, which is something that they desire but rarely receive. I’m going to respond to their initial questions by saying, I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash, so I’m not going to be able to help you out.
If they snap back at me and deny that they were going to ask for cash and then tell me they were going to ask for a cigarette, I’m going to say, I’m sorry, but I don’t smoke cigarettes. If I could help you out, I would. Then I’m going to do the same thing I always do — say a prayer for them, which will benefit them much more than the small amount of money I could have given them.
As I said above, they do not use the money they collect for food. They can get food at one of the local shelters or at Sophia’s Kitchen, which is near downtown Peoria.
They may still get angry about the way I respond to them, but at least they will not feel humiliated and worthless because of the way I treated them.
While society may treat people who are homeless as though they have no value, in the eyes of their Creator, their souls have infinite value.
You may be familiar with the old saying, “But for the grace of God go I.” I could have been any one of those homeless men on the street if I had grown up in the same environment they grew up in. The least I can do is respectfully acknowledge them and then say a prayer for them.
This is how Jesus treated every homeless person who approached Him — with respect, kindness, and love.