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Editorial: Learn lessons from Larry Bierl's bitter cold death

When it comes to the death of Williamsville’s well-known homeless man, Lawrence Bierl, we are left with more questions than answers.

Did anyone see Bierl out in the cold on Thursday, the day he was found dead in a bus shelter on Main Street? Was there some kind of institutional failure that allowed him to slip through the cracks and perish on a public street in subzero temperatures in one of Western New York’s most affluent ZIP codes?

Or, was there a unique series of events that we can try to learn from without needing to assign blame? That is one likely conclusion.

There is much we don’t know as a community about Lawrence Bierl’s life, including how he ended up living on the streets. Bierl was Williamsville's most conspicuous homeless person and his death attracted a great deal of public notice. Almost anyone who has spent any time in the district near Williamsville’s Walker Center shopping plaza has seen Larry, with his long mane of hair and camouflage clothing, often found sitting at a table in Tim Hortons, Wendy’s or some other shop.

What also made the man known as Larry stand out was the fact that he was quiet and unassuming. He never bothered anyone, never begged for money or help, and it seemed that the community accepted him on his own terms.

After his death many people shared stories of offering Bierl food, money and shelter over the years; he usually declined the help if it meant surrendering any of his freedom.

The day before his death, the 69-year-old Bierl walked to the Reikart House hotel to take refuge from the blizzard and deadly cold. The hotel offered him a warm room for the night, but Bierl declined. He likely retreated to his secret spot in a wooded area on Main Street.

It’s hard not to believe that some form of mental illness resulted in Bierl, a 1967 graduate of Bishop Turner High School, living on the streets. Though his face was familiar to so many, Bierl’s private life was all but unknown.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2016 issued an executive order, known as the Code Blue law, that directs state and local police, as well as social service agencies, “to take all necessary steps” to identify homeless people and move them to appropriate shelter when the outdoor temperature is 32 degrees or below.

Nadia Pizarro, coordinator for the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless’ Code Blue Collaborative, told The News that the Code Blue outreach van tried to locate Bierl during the storm last week but was unable.

“They even followed footprints from the bus stop,” she said. “Where he slept was a big secret.”

Bierl was clearly no threat to anyone else, which is why he was mostly left to live the way he wanted. It can be argued that he was a threat to himself when he passed up an offer of a free hotel room and withdrew to his hidden spot, but what more could anyone else have reasonably done on the night when he died? Possibly nothing, but the question separates life from death. That makes it worth asking.

Certainly, there was little traffic along Main Street during last week’s biting cold. Blown snow covered much of the glass in the bus shelter in which Bierl died, making it unlikely for a passerby to spot him.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is for more people to become aware of the dangers of Code Blue conditions, and to think about volunteering some time or resources to fighting the problem.

Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of Homeless Alliance of Western New York, urges members of the public to contact federal and state elected officials and ask for more funding for homeless services.

Many of the support services to help the homeless are concentrated in Buffalo, but as Bierl’s death showed, there are homeless people elsewhere, too.

In the city, suburbs or rural areas, concerned people may call 211 or the local police department to get help for a homeless person during extreme weather.

Bierl’s life and bitter cold death will be forgotten only if we allow them to be.

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