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Archive for Thursday, January 23, 2003

Homeless man’s choice outside system’s reach

January 23, 2003

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Anyone who's been downtown recently has seen Robert Gilmore, the homeless man huddling on the sidewalk in front of Weaver's Department Store.

Usually wrapped in thrift-shop blankets and sleeping bags, he's been there for several months.

He was there last August, when the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

And he was on the streets Wednesday night, when temperatures plunged well below zero.

"We're concerned about his welfare," Weaver's president Joe Flannery said.

"We've had the police come down several times. They say they know him well, but they say there's not an ordinance against what he's doing. He doesn't panhandle; he doesn't bother people. He doesn't come in the store."

Gilmore, whose street name is Simon, is often seen wearing socks on his hands. To those who keep tabs on the city's homeless, Gilmore is well-known.

"Everybody knows him," said Herman Leon, a member of the Lawrence Coalition on Homeless Concerns and a board member of Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen. "When you get to know him, he's remarkably intelligent. But he's been known to do some pretty insane things -- like walking down the middle of Ninth Street, from Iowa to Massachusetts."

Court records show he has been arrested, jailed and released several times in recent years, usually for disobeying a police officer.

Despite all that, there's nowhere else for Gilmore to be.

Robert Gilmore eats in front of Weaver's Department store, 901
Mass., as snow falls and temperatures drop during winter's coldest
day. Gilmore lives on the streets and carries his possessions in
plastic bags, which also include clothing and blankets provided by
concerned Lawrence residents.

Robert Gilmore eats in front of Weaver's Department store, 901 Mass., as snow falls and temperatures drop during winter's coldest day. Gilmore lives on the streets and carries his possessions in plastic bags, which also include clothing and blankets provided by concerned Lawrence residents.

"We can't force our services on someone, even when we think they're in the person's best interest," said Gary Miller, who coordinates services for the homeless at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

While declining to comment on Gilmore's situation because of confidentiality restrictions, Miller and officials at the Community Drop-In Center said there was little they could do to force someone like Gilmore to seek and accept services.

"There's a very thin line between civil liberties and competency," Miller said, noting that while most Lawrence residents may find Gilmore's choices unacceptable -- or even life-threatening -- they are, nonetheless, his choices to make.

"In our society, we've defined civil liberties as being more important than mandating services," Miller said.





Tami Clark, director at Community Drop-In Center, agreed.

"It's unfortunate, but we can't force someone to take services they don't want; we have to respect each person's desire to live the life they want to live," Clark said. "Our job is to be there when that person wants our services."

Clark and Miller said their programs had frequent contact with people in Gilmore's situation.

Earlier this week, Gilmore, 45, said he couldn't explain why he was sitting in front of Weaver's.

"Why is anybody anywhere?" he asked, responding to a question posed by a Journal-World reporter.

"I'm sitting here," he said. "It's hard to tell."

Asked why he wasn't taking advantage of the warmth and comfort available at either the Community Drop-In Center, 214 W. 10th St., or the Salvation Army, 946 N.H., Gilmore said he could be in only one of two places.

One, he said, was in front of Weaver's; the other is "... too many years away in terms of current technology."

Gilmore camped behind the Dole Human Development Center on the Kansas University campus until last spring, when he was involuntarily committed to Osawatomie State Hospital.

Law enforcement officials say there's little they can do about such a situation.

As they have in the past, police could arrest Gilmore on the grounds he is being a danger to himself.

But Douglas County Sheriff Rick Trapp said the public was kidding itself if it thought the answer was a jail cell.

"We do as much as we can, but, really, unless they're charged with a violent crime, they don't belong in jail," Trapp said. "They ought to be in a hospital-type setting."

Until the mid-1980s, someone like Gilmore would have been sent to one of the state's three mental hospitals in Larned, Osawatomie or Topeka. But lawmakers closed Topeka State Hospital in 1997 with the understanding that mental health centers would provide comparable services available in their communities.

Today, admissions to Larned and Osawatomie state hospitals are limited to people whose conditions are so severe they've become a danger to themselves or others and cannot be cared for in the community. It's a threshold that, so far this winter, Gilmore hasn't reached.

Margaret Severson, an associate professor at Kansas University who studies issues involving mental illness and jails, said Gilmore had fallen through a hard-to-close crack in the system.

"For one reason or another, he's not been responsive to the services that have been made available to him," she said. "I respect that, but at the same time, there ought to be alternative ways for systems to respond to people in these situations; we've not figured out how to do that yet."

She added: "We have to confront our discomfort with this -- instead of having him hauled off. There ought to be a community discussion."

The Coalition on Homeless Concerns meets at 7:30 tonight at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

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