By Jim Newell
Most days Bruce Gertz sits quietly on a bench in the Village of Lake Orion, umbrella in one hand to shade him from the sun or rain, watching as the cars go by on M-24.
He has his bicycle and personal items alongside his new quarters, and wraps up in a sleeping bag at night, reclining on a bench along Lapeer Road in front of the plaza south of Atwater Street that houses several local businesses, including Rio on the Main, Sala Thai, SVS Vision and O’Reilly Auto Parts.
Gertz, Lake Orion’s resident wanderer and homeless individual, has taken up occupancy of the bench since the spring. He had, in previous years, stationed himself near the old Christi’s sign on the corner of M-24 and E. Clarkston Road in Orion Township.
Now, however, Gertz’s residency on the bench is being questioned.
On Monday, Councilmember Ray Hammond asked during the Lake Orion Village Council meeting what could be done about relocating Gertz. Hammond asked for a representative of the police department to attend the next council meeting on July 22 to advise the council on its options.
“A few weeks ago, after talking with some friends and neighbors, I brought up the situation that I’ve been noticing. Seems like the village has inherited a homeless individual on M-24. So, I reached out to Jerry Narsh, the chief of police, and asked him about his knowledge of the law and what his position was and what the police department’s involvement (was) to date,” Hammond said. “And Jerry sent me back a nice memo that he prepared for council – I have not seen it come to council, yet. I told Jerry, after reading all the details, which I won’t go into, that I appreciated his concern for individual rights and private property. Big fan of those things. But we’ve got a problem.
“And I’d like to ask Mr. Narsh, the chief, to come to the next council meeting prepared to speak to an action plan around this individual,” Hammond said. “Since I’ve gotten Jerry’s response, which was thoughtful, very professional…I appreciate it, it was well done, it was very sensitive. But I find it less than satisfying that we (don’t) have a plan to do away with the public camping on main street. And I think the more we tolerate that, the more we’re going to get of that type of behavior.
“So, not to be hard-hearted, but I think the village needs to take action on this before this individual either expands his zone or gets some companions. That’s my position on it. So, I’d like to see something move forward on that, a plan of some sorts,” Hammond said.
The rest of the village council members acknowledged that they have read Narsh’s memo, which Narsh said he prepared to give the council the legal background information and guidance on the issue.
Village Manager Joe Young said that people have complained to the village about Gertz taking up residence on the bench.
“People say, ‘Can’t you do something? Can’t you find him some place to live?’ But he has to be willing to do that,” Young said.
Both Young and Narsh said that Gertz, like any citizen, must adhere to the law.
When Gertz moved to the bench in the village, Narsh said that Lake Orion police met with him and warned him that he must not create debris or litter, he must clean up after himself and that he cannot use the outdoors as a restroom.
“While he’s been here, for the most part, he’s complied with that,” Narsh said, adding that Gertz uses the restrooms and throws his trash away at local restaurants.
“He elicits emotion on both sides of the spectrum. There’s those who have pity for him and try to help him, and others who are angered by the sight of him. Certainly, it’s a moral issue,” Narsh said.
Narsh points out that if someone in a $1,200 suit with a Rolex began spending all day and night on a public bench, would there be the same level of concern?
“We want to make sure that Bruce is treated with dignity and respect – and that he follows the laws that everyone must follow,” Narsh said.
And it’s a complex issue for law enforcement.
A western district federal court in Michigan ruled that public begging – including if a person is positioned in a place where people could stop and give that individual money, even if it’s unsolicited – is protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
It’s deemed “expressive conduct,” Narsh said. “It’s not just a humanity issue; it’s a dicey legal issue. We’re limited by case law about what we can legally do.”
Narsh has reached out to local clergy and churches and plans to have more in-depth conversations to see if they can find a place where Gertz feels comfortable and safe.
Narsh said Gertz also does not meet the legal definition of vagrancy.
“He always has money in his pocket. People care for him,” Narsh said. “He’s Orion’s wanderer and people care for Bruce. It’s a commentary that Lake Orion is a caring community.”
While there have been allegations of drunken behavior, Narsh said, “I’ve never seen that yet,” adding that Gertz also has never been known to be violent.
Still, where Gertz is camped out – in plain sight along M-24, the “gateway” to the Lake Orion community – has raised some concerns from residents who don’t want him there.
Narsh said the LOPD has received six to seven “inquiries” about Gertz; a few of which were complaints wanting the police department to remove him; while others asked if there was anything that could be done to help.
“Where he is now is technically private property. The owners of the plaza have not contacted the LOPD saying they don’t want him there,” Narsh said. “People do have a right to say they don’t want him on private property.”
Narsh said there isn’t any taxpayer funded shelters for the homeless where the police can take Gertz.
“He is afraid of homeless shelters. He doesn’t feel safe there. He just chooses to exist in public,” Narsh said. “I would love to hear from folks who have an option that would make Bruce happy.”
Gertz, who is in his mid-sixties, has roamed the Orion area for the past two decades, living wherever he could make a bed for the night. For a few years now, community volunteers have set up a GoFundMe account to help keep Gertz in a motel and off the streets throughout the winters.
On Jan. 3, deputies from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Orion Twp. Substation went to the corner of Clarkston and Lapeer (M-24) roads to check on Gertz, reporting that Gertz’s “condition appeared to have declined and clothing, bedding and other items were found to be contaminated with urine, old food items and fecal matter where the man sleeps,” according to a report from the Orion Twp. Substation.