Lexingtonians use Facebook to help a homeless woman find shelter

gkocher1@herald-leader.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Count it as a victory. Temporary, yes, but still a victory.

For years, a homeless woman known as Dorothy — the Lexington woman with the dark raincoat and thick lenses in her eyeglasses, who trundled carts filled with plastic bags around Chevy Chase, Ashland Avenue and Woodland Park — had refused all invitations and pleas to accept food, water or indoor shelter. She preferred to sleep outside, whatever the weather.

"I'm OK," Dorothy would tell Debra Hensley. "Don't worry."

But things changed this past weekend, as residents became concerned about the approaching arctic blast and its promise of temperatures that could induce frostbite.

Hensley's Facebook friends rallied to locate Dorothy, then enlisted the help of Lexington police to persuade the homeless woman to accept the offer of a motel room this week.

To everyone's relief, Dorothy accepted and remains out of the cold. The cost of the room is being paid by some of the people who were concerned for Dorothy's safety.

"Thankfully, she was agreeable to something that was being offered to her," said Connie Milligan, regional director of intake and emergency services for Bluegrass.org (formerly known as Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board) and director of the Kentucky Jail Mental Health Crisis Network.

The episode demonstrates the compassion and caring of people who saw a need, but it also highlights the complexity of dealing with homeless people like Dorothy.

But back to the beginning.

On Saturday, Hensley, a Lexington State Farm Insurance agent and former member of the Urban County Council, posted an inquiry on her Facebook page to see whether anyone had seen Dorothy lately.

"This whole Chevy Chase area, from the Second Presbyterian Church people to the police to a hundred or so who live in this area, always keep her in our sight," Hens ley said. "And when she is out of our sight line, we get worried."

"Please, friends," Hensley wrote on her Facebook post, "look after her and pray for her safety."

The Facebook friends began responding. They had seen Dorothy here and there. Then they took action. Some, including Hensley, got into their vehicles and began looking for Dorothy.

In the meantime, a conversation developed among the Facebook friends about what to do when Dorothy was found. Retired psychologist Carla Wolff had advised Hensley that Dorothy should be given a choice: Accept the offer of a motel room or potentially face an emergency detention and a commitment to Eastern State Hospital.

"People are very reluctant to do that because it's a little scary, because you don't know what the person is going to do, and I think a lot of people really don't understand mental illness," Wolff said.

Hensley contacted Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin, who put her in touch with Central Sector commander Doug Pape. He was familiar with Dorothy.

"Anyone who lives around the Chevy Chase-Ashland-Woodland Park area knows who Dorothy is," Pape said. "It usually takes her 10 trips to cross the street because she's got to go back and get bags and bring them back and forth."

Pape, in turn, contacted Sgt. April Brown. Brown, officers Kevin Jones and Chaz Grider, and Hensley located Dorothy on Sunday.

Brown, who served in the Army National Guard in Bosnia and Guantánamo Bay, put it succinctly to Dorothy.

"I said, 'Dorothy, we don't want to leave you out here. We don't want anything bad to happen to you,'" Brown said. "'If you stay out here, something bad will happen. The weather will be too much for you to bear.' I'm a soldier; been a soldier for 23 years, and even I would not stay out here if I didn't have to.

"And I told her, 'If you don't want to go, I might have to take you to Eastern State, and I don't want to do that.'"

To Brown's relief, Dorothy was amenable to the idea of a motel room.

"At first she said, 'I'll be OK,' and she didn't want to leave her stuff," which consisted of bags and bags of belongings that she carries on two-wheeled carts.

"And I said, 'What if you could take your stuff with you?'" Brown said.

Dorothy agreed to take shelter if her possessions could go with her. Police summoned a patrol wagon to carry Dorothy's stuff.

"She was not antagonistic at all," Brown said. "She was probably the most cooperative I've seen her. We got her into her room and all her carts. ... I could tell she was out of her element, but she didn't seem like she would not be able to stay. She was willing to concede that this was probably a good idea."

Hensley said the police "were fabulous" in dealing sensitively with Dorothy.

"There was a real fine line in presenting options to her that would allow her to understand that this was only about her safety and not about invading her privacy," Hensley said.

Pape said the police would much rather help a person in advance than "come across them dead the next day. Because we usually get the other end. The bottom line is they're just people trying to get by. So we have to help them if we can."

Milligan said the story illustrated that Lexington was "a compassionate, sharing city."

But it also showed that "our ability to solve every social problem is limited by lots of rules and regulations ... and therefore we're not always able to do everything we want to do," she said. "In this situation, we have an individual who made a choice to live the way she lives, and when people see this, they assume that someone has fallen down on their job, that people aren't doing enough, when in fact many people from many different organizations have reached out to her.

"Leaving someone out in the cold, knowing she would freeze to death, would show a great deal of social irresponsibility on all of our parts. So I think the police absolutely did the right thing to give her a choice, that you can voluntarily go to safe housing, and we'll make arrangements for you, and if you're unwilling to do that, then we'll have no choice but to take you someplace that will provide you shelter against your will. That's basically what our laws allow us to do.

"If she had refused to go and we had not had a second option that provided her safe shelter, if she had been a casualty of death on the street, then we all would have been responsible."

Sadly, some people in need of help will say no.

"The complexity of this is that they can say no, but unless they meet criteria for hospitalization, that 'no' stands," Milligan said. "The criteria for hospitalization is basically taking their civil liberties away. The entire process is very careful to respect the person's dignity and to respect their rights as a human being. ... But (hospitalization) is only done when people meet very specific criteria and it's clear that the person is in life-threatening danger to themselves or others. The criteria includes that they have a diagnosable mental illness, that this is the least restrictive treatment available and that they can benefit from it. Someone has to meet all four of those criteria.

"So in this situation, thankfully, she was agreeable to something that was being offered to her."

It's impossible to say whether Dorothy will be more agreeable to shelter in the future.

"I don't think we can make a lot of predictions from this," Milligan said. "This is a wonderful outcome in a very scary situation. We're all really happy that she's safe and warm and will be for now, and we're going to try to make arrangements to extend this for as long as possible, for as long as she's willing."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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