Constable: 'Everyone on the street has a story,' or, how to treat the homeless

Updated 10/23/2018 7:04 AM

We know them, but we know little about them.

The suburban "character" population becomes part of our routine. He's that quiet guy we spot always hanging around our coffee shop. She's that woman who sometimes has a homemade sign seeking handouts as we pass her on the tollway ramp. He's that smiling man who rides a rickshaw bike around town but doesn't give rides. She's that well-dressed woman sitting outside the sandwich shop who innocently says, "May I ask you something?" before launching into a tale about her mistreatment from a landlord who actually is related to her cousin's dentist, if you can believe that.


In this case, he's that guy whose death was announced Sunday on a Facebook page, and people initially expressed sorrow and sympathy.

"That's so sad," one person posted. Another recalled buying the man a sandwich. Even if the man wasn't always pleasant, his family still deserves condolences, wrote a third.

"My sister and I found him in the middle of Golf and Salem. We helped him up and drove him to the police station for shelter," reads another post. "Then someone stole his brand-new bike. I haven't seen him in quite a few months."

Then the comments got a bit flip, even mean. There was a suggestion that he probably owned a pet rat, went to jail and died of lung cancer because he was a smoker and got exactly what he should have expected.

"I hope Your higher power punishes u all for being ugly cold hearted people!!!" read one of the last posts before the entire thread of conversation was deleted.

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The man, who posted a Facebook photo of himself shirtless and making a rude gesture as part of a video titled "Getting drunk at the woods" back in 2011, apparently died in April at age 58. In addition to his photos and video from that summer day in the woods in August 2011, his Facebook entries included "Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr It's cold out here" during the winter of 2013, a 2012 post noting "I got staples in my head :(", and laughing in 2011 about how a walker might be "a prop to gain sympathy to get money when I panhandle."

He listed "Bum at Schaumburg Township District Library" as his occupation and was well-known to the staff and patrons.

"One of the unique things about a public library is that we serve all people," says Monica Harris, executive director of the Schaumburg Township District Library, who declined to talk about a specific patron. A code of conduct doesn't apply simply to the homeless or people with mental issues. Moving furniture, passing petitions, talking on cellphones in quiet zones, letting kids run wild and hiding materials from others are all violations of the code, same as swearing, asking for money, drinking vodka in the bathroom or harassing people.

Whether a person needs information about applying to Harvard, applying for government assistance, locating his friend's new novel or finding a public shower, "that is all delivered with compassion and respect," Harris says.

If you aren't sure whether that person standing outside your favorite coffee shop is an eccentric genius or a mentally ill homeless person, your response is simple. "Just go human," advises Lauren Saternus, chairwoman of the Schaumburg Township Mental Health Committee. "Say hello. Don't avoid eye contact. Everybody on the street has a story."


Treating people with respect is a key in "The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone," by Ryan J. Dowd, executive director of Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora. The book is sold by the American Library Association, and Dowd publishes lots of good advice on the website.

Smiling, talking softly and being polite help, writes Dowd, who notes, "There is NEVER NEVER NEVER a situation where disrespect is helpful (NEVER!)."

That same strategy works with interesting characters at sandwich shops, coffee places, tollway exits, your workplace, your commute, your home and throughout the suburbs, even with a guy who characterizes himself as a bum.

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