Frenchie: Rest In Peace Old Buddy.

There he sat...
Hunched up alone
On Chicago's brutal concrete
Ignored by the vast majority
Greeted by a compassionate few

There he sat...
Minute after minute
Hour after hour
Day after day
Week after week

There he sat...
Withering into the rugged landscape
Staining his fingers with endless cigarettes
Enduring summer's humidity and winter's howling winds
Living with his endearing smile and pleasant greetings.

It was 2007. Day after day, Frenchie sat on the corner of Wilson and Sheridan fading into the landscape. His thin body was getting thinner, his sunken eyes were sinking deeper and his dirty clothes were caked in grime. Yet, Frenchie always greeted us all with a smile and his kind-hearted comments.

As he sat, those of us who passed him daily grew to love him and his softly spoken greetings. He wasn't a nameless invisible soul to us, he was Frenchie. By merely sitting there, he had captured our hearts. My children and other kids knew him, and felt a deep compassion for him. They couldn't ignore him, so they prayed for him and asked many questions about the little old homeless man, who was missing an eye and sat peacefully on our corner.

It was 2007 and the weather was starting to rapidly disintegrate into the brutality of winter and Frenchie was looking was like he was rapidly disintegrating into the pavement at the same time. He was fading! His homeless comrades pleaded his case. Adults from JPUSA were very worried and our children were concerned about their old buddy. "Can't we do something?" "Can't we help him somehow?" "Can't we please get him inside anywhere?"

On many occasions, I'd crouched down beside my old friend and asked him if he needed help and a warm place to stay. His reply was always, "I'm alright Jeremy, I'm staying at a friend's house! But thanks for asking." I didn't believe him, but what could I do? These lies he told, stemmed from the gentleness and compassion that saturated his soul; he simply didn't want to bother me.

It was 2007 and it was one ugly morning; howling winds and a massive drop in the temperature. As I starting wandering to work, I knew there was no way Frenchie could survive the winter, I threw up a quick prayer before I couched down on the frigid pavement and begged him to tell me the truth. He was tired and the approaching winter worried him. He also feared being a victim of pointless violence, so he muttered the truth! Frenchie told me he was sleeping behind a local Dollar Store and humbly admitted he needed rescuing and assistance.

What happened next was one of the most beautiful sights to behold and symbolized the hidden beauty of homeless communities. I grabbed the opportunity and walked him over to Cornerstone and gave him a bed on the 4th floor. All the nervousness and anxiety that grasped him was quickly put to rest, as our little homeless community showered him with amazing love and gifts. They knew Frenchie, so they were overjoyed to see their old buddy escape the harsh streets and come inside. One guy with a tough reputation gave him one of his winter coats and a bunch of his clean clothes, another man made him coffee and another set up his bed and made sure he had enough sheets and blankets. In that first hour, this quiet humble man probably received more hugs, fist pumps, handshakes and generosity than he had received in years. I was able to leave the shelter, knowing Frenchie was safe and surrounded by friends who cared for him.

It may have been 2007, but I'd known Frenchie for years. I believe he'd been homeless, in or around Uptown, for at least 15 years. I'd personally known him since 1999. He was without income, but would make a buck or two by doing little odd jobs for various neighborhood Corner Stores. The pittance he earned would be used to satisfy his 3 addictions; coffee, cigarettes and scratchy cards. He had his routine: he'd rise bright and early every morning, go to the Diner under the "Wilson EL", drink his coffee, read a newspaper and smoke plenty cigarettes. He spent the rest of his days doing these odd jobs, drinking coffee in McDonald's and scratching lottery cards. But since that time, Uptown's little Diner shut down and his health started rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to work, so he gravitated to sitting on our windy blustery corner every single day.

When Frenchie finally entered our doors at CCO, we gave him a lot more than just "3 hots and a cot", which gave new life to his weary body and withering stomach! We gave him family. We gave him community. We gave him love. We also gave him a little more; he'd been living a life of dejection and rejection, but we were able to gift him with the hope of new opportunities and fresh dreams. We were able to help a man who thought he deserved nothing and didn't aim for anything, by assisting him grab and achieve things the very things he deserved!

We quickly realized that Frenchie's homelessness and lack of forward movement wasn't because he wanted to stay homeless or live a nomad lifestyle, but rather, he seemed to be paralyzed by an inability to make decisions. Maybe he had a social anxiety disorder or another deep rooted mental illness, but for some mysterious reason, he lacked the basic life skills to transition onward. He was a survivor, but we also desired to see progress, and that meant "holding his hand!" Through extensive case-management, networking and a lot of prodding, we discovered Frenchie had Social Security (pension) owed him from his extensive work history. A couple months later, he got a juicy little lump sum and started receiving monthly payments. After achieving that goal, we were able to successfully move him into his own apartment at JPUSA's senior housing program; Friendly Towers! 

In 2008, Friendly Towers became Frenchie's new home and the people living in the building became his new family. He didn't shirk his responsibilities and faithfully paid rent! Young and old adored this man who'd still venture out onto Wilson Avenue, sit on the pavement and satisfy his addictions by smoking countless cigarettes and scratching those lottery tickets. But now there was a big difference; when the sun began to set or the snow began to fall, he could retire into his own crib and eat 3 nutritious meals every day. Despite all this, he still seemed paralyzed by an inability to make decisions and constantly needed assistance with taking care of his basic necessities. If we'd see him wearing the same clothes for quite a while, we'd get him a new outfit from our Freestore, Harold would compassionately bring him meals or he'd forget to eat and the Friendly Towers staff would make sure the doctors visited him, his sheets were changed and his room was livable. Frenchie had moved into the "perfect place" for him, where he was embraced by loving compassionate people who made sure he was wasn't ignored or forgotten!

If Frenchie had remained behind that Dollar Store, I truly believe Frenchie would have died during the frigid winter of 2007. He was too weak, the weather was too harsh and it seemed he was quickly fading into the night! He moved indoors and found 2 loving communities that embraced him! Because of all this, he blessed us and Uptown with over 5 more years. French Smallwood passed away in a local Nursing Home on Sunday, July 7th, 2013.

Frenchie humbly agreed to be featured on the cover of Glenn Kaiser's "Cardboard Box" album. All the songs deal with homelessness and poverty in America. The proceeds go to the work of Cornerstone Community Outreach as we attempt to help the homeless population in Uptown, Chicago. I believe this album, Frenchie's photo and his story pictures God's Kingdom at work, right here in Uptown. "The least of these" shall not be ignored and forgotten when the Kingdom of God is operating in our midst. A socially anxious, chronically homeless man, who was sitting on the verge of death's door, found hope because loving individuals and caring communities decided not to walk past a man who wanted to be ignored. This quiet gentle soul found Revolutionary Love that winter and he never stopped blessing us all in return!

Frenchie was my buddy. Ever since I met him, way back in 1999, he remained an absolutely amazing example of humility, kindness and gentleness. Despite all the rejection and hostility this poor man suffered over many homeless years, simply because he quietly sat on the curb with messy hair, dirty finger nails and grubby clothes, I never saw him angry or heard him complain. He never wanted to bother anyone, always greeted us with a smile and was forever thankful. All of us who were privileged enough to know him, were blessed beyond words by our good buddy Frenchie!

Frenchie: Rest In Peace Old Buddy! You were truly loved....


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