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Father Richard Lawrence: The Baltimore priest who vowed to go to jail to defend the right of the homeless to a night’s sleep | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Richard Lawrence, left, celebrating Mass in Baltimore in 2013 with the Rev. Charles "Father Chuck" Canterna.
The Rev. Richard Lawrence, left, celebrating Mass in Baltimore in 2013 with the Rev. Charles "Father Chuck" Canterna. (St. Vincent de Paul Church)

Father Richard Lawrence, the longtime Catholic pastor who died on Thanksgiving, stood for several years at the epicenter of Baltimore’s long, frustrating and morally challenging struggles with people who are homeless. It was, and still is, at the corner of East Fayette and President streets, in a pocket park of tall trees by St. Vincent de Paul Church.

Lawrence was the pastor of St. Vincent’s going back to the 1970s, when the area next to the church was known as Wino Park. The homeless at the time were generally regarded as drunks and vagabonds.

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But, in the 1970s and early 1980s, after several years of deinstitutionalization, more of the country’s mentally ill adults started showing up on city streets. Many of those who had been confined to state institutions now lived closer to home and were expected to receive therapy in community mental health facilities. Funding for those services was never adequate, however.

Making matters worse, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Congress repealed a landmark law designed to help the mentally ill and made, along with it, further cuts in federal funding. That and other factors — the loss of industry and jobs, the rise in heroin addiction, increased incarceration, the AIDS epidemic, a lack of public and affordable housing, cuts in social services and welfare benefits, particularly for single men — contributed to a rise in homeless adults.

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It was around the time of Baltimore’s renaissance at the Inner Harbor that we started seeing more people panhandling, lining up for food at soup kitchens and beds in shelters, and more people sleeping on benches, sidewalks and steam vents. Many gathered in the park at Fayette and President.

“St. Vincent’s has always been that way,” says the Rev. Charles “Father Chuck” Canterna, who served as associate pastor there in the early 1980s and, though for decades a Maryland prison chaplain, still resides in St. Vincent’s rectory. “It’s just gotten worse over the years.”

By “worse,” Canterna means the increase in the numbers of homeless who come to the church for help or who sleep on the streets around it. And, within those numbers, are the homeless who refuse help, who won’t go to shelters. They are the toughest cases. On Monday afternoon, a man huddled under a blanket against a front door of the church; another lay on a ramp leading to a side entrance. The St. Vincent’s parish, led by its current pastor, the Rev. Ray Chase, provides food, clothing and comfort for the homeless who go there, and that tradition goes back decades.

“I am so proud of St. Vincent’s,” Canterna says.

It was Lawrence, the pastor for 43 years until his retirement in 2017, who believed the church had a responsibility to help the growing numbers of homeless, and that meant leaving the park open to them.

The church acquired the park from the city in 2000 and defended it as a sanctuary.

But for several years, Lawrence’s commitment to the homeless ran against City Hall and downtown businesses. The park became a shantytown of tents and makeshift shelters, and the most sympathetic of observers considered it an eyesore at a high-profile commuter point near the ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway. When there was talk of the city breaking up the encampment, Lawrence declared that he would go to jail to defend the right of the homeless to a night’s sleep.

“This is a church, and as pastor of this church I can’t tell somebody that I am going to have them locked up if they sleep on my bench,” he said. “The first time someone is arrested for sleeping on a bench, I will be the second person arrested because I will go out and sleep on a bench myself.”

Arresting someone for being homeless, Lawrence said, “didn’t sound like Jesus.”

There were negotiations with the city and the archdiocese to come up with a wise but compassionate management plan for the park. “It was very intense,” says Colleen McCahill, St. Vincent’s pastoral associate who previously served as president of the parish council. The decision in 2009 to close the park for a couple of months, erect a fence around it and establish new rules recognized that some of those camping there had engaged in criminal behavior. While an ardent defender of his church’s mission to help the homeless, Lawrence drew lines. Prostitution, drug use and drug dealing would not be tolerated. People could sleep in the park at night, but they had to leave each morning and take their belongings with them.

“There is always a fine line between compassion and enabling,” Lawrence said more than once during those years.

For a decade, until after Lawrence’s final days as pastor, the plan generally worked. However, the park had to be closed again in September 2019 because of drug dealing. It has not reopened during the pandemic.

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These are as tough as any human problems anywhere, a tangle of issues and forces, some of them competing — untreated mental illness and drug addiction; the desire to help those in need, the desire to have a city of pretty boulevards and thriving businesses, the willingness to accept the homeless as they are, the unwillingness to accept bad behavior.

Father Lawrence did not solve the problem of homelessness in Baltimore. But he defined the fine line between compassion and enabling, between charity and practicality. He left a good shepherd’s example for those who still seek answers.

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