Most people’s stereotype of a homeless person is that they are dirty, drunk, rude, standing in lines for handouts, uneducated, and mentally ill. My brother Francis “Fran” Bacon fit that description at times, and yet there was much more than a passing glance might tell you if you saw him on the streets of Harrisburg.
Francis was born July 10, 1956, the youngest of four children—three boys and one girl—to Grace Gallagher and Arthur Francis Bacon. As the only girl, I assumed the role as his “little mother” early on and did my best to look after him until he passed away in November. He was my baby brother and he called me Mae, the only person to do that. (He also called me Sissy, but I always ignored that because it annoyed me.)
Francis was two years old when our father died of cirrhosis of the liver. I don’t know that Francis had many memories of our father. My father had mental health issues—which is why he drank—but he was also brilliant. And so was Francis (what else would you expect from someone named Francis Bacon).
The principal at our local parochial school realized early on (an act of kindness) that Francis and my two other brothers needed a better education than what they could get in Freeland, Pa., a small coal mining town, so they were sent to Milton Hershey School once they reached the age of 12. The school at that time was only open to boys who had lost one or both parents. The school provided everything—clothing, housing, food, education—at no cost to my mother (another act of kindness). She and I later moved to Hershey so we could live closer.
Francis graduated from Milton Hershey School with a full scholarship to Cornell University (more kindness), but at the same time his life-long struggle with bipolar disorder hit and he left college after only one year.
In spite of his inherited mental illness, Francis never stopped learning. He also never felt sorry for himself and created a life on the street and made it his community. So many people along the way showed their kindness and he, in turn (when he wasn’t drinking), returned his kindness to them. Elaine Strokoff and the people at Downtown Daily Bread were one of those. It wasn’t just the food, which is so critical when you are hungry and poor, but it was also the respect he was given and friendships that he developed that became a lifeline for him. One example is that they helped him order books and have them shipped to their address because he didn’t have one. When Francis was missing just before his death, they posted a sign on the wall asking if anyone had seen him.
There were many, many others that were kind to my brother as well. Chuck Wingate at the Bethesda Mission who became a close friend, checked up on him and drove him places, took him shopping, accepted his phone calls and had his wife Nancy, a nurse, care for him when he was ill. April and Angel Ocasio from Isaiah 61 adopted Francis and he became Uncle Fran to their children. All of the caseworkers at CMU; the librarians at the Dauphin County Library; the bank clerks at Wells Fargo; Deb Ritchey at the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority; the Salvation Army; Father Rozman, Deacon Crudup and staff at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Shining Light Thrift Shop; the staff at Hamilton Health Center; St. Francis of Assisi’s soup kitchen; and Rev. Karin Pejak at Zion Lutheran Church. They all were a part of his community.
My brothers and I knew very little of this kindness. We are grateful and thankful to all. Caring is a two way street and one act of kindness often leads to another. We also had little knowledge of the life Francis made living on the street and only recently learned about the many friends he had. At his funeral, we heard about how funny he was, a great story teller, smart, generous; and, most of all, kind. We are proud of him and take great comfort in knowing this now.
So the next time you pass a homeless person on the street, don’t make assumptions. Just show some kindness. You never know where it will lead.