Drug Holiday

Once a leading gay activist, CenterOne cofounder Gary Steinsmith has fallen on hard times

But London says he did not sell Steinsmith another Jag.

Before the week was over, Steinsmith was arrested again. Close to midnight on Halloween, he pushed past security at the Marriott Hotel marina, where the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show was taking place. Claiming that he was the owner of the yacht Lil Sis, he awakened the owners by tossing luggage aboard and announcing that he was moving in. Police quickly subdued and arrested him for trespassing.

At Fort Lauderdale City Jail, he tore apart a restraint chair because, according to the arrest report, "I wanted to see how strong it really was."

Michael McElroy
Longtime friend and attorney Rae Shearn took Steinsmith's case for free
Michael McElroy
Longtime friend and attorney Rae Shearn took Steinsmith's case for free

This time, Steinsmith's friends did not bail him out. "We didn't know what to do," Derning says. "But we knew that if we got him out and back into society, he would really hurt himself."

Out of desperation, Steinsmith looked up Broward County Commissioner Lori Nance Parrish's home number in the phone book and called her at 1:30 in the morning. "It was hard to understand him at first," she says. "But when I figured out who I had on the phone, I knew I had to get him out of there and get him some help."

She tried to call Broward House and CenterOne. Parrish says Broward House's CEO, Tom Shidaker, would not take her call. "I told them finally that I was a commissioner, and that's when he called me back," Parrish says. (Shidaker denies that he avoided Parrish's call.) Parrish says she couldn't reach anyone at CenterOne with the authority to help Steinsmith.

Parrish accuses the county's largest AIDS agencies of not reaching out to the ailing activist before he ended up in jail. Broward House and CenterOne counter that they don't have the facilities or staff to treat the mentally ill. Kathleen Cannon, director of CenterOne client services, says the agency is strapped enough without searching out clients who are not willing to come forward and ask for help first.

"There are 11 HIV case-management agencies in Broward," Cannon says. "We have seven case managers responsible for about 300 clients each. It's incredibly hard, a real struggle for everyone. If we had a cap on our caseload, then we could make multicontact and home visits.

"It's unfortunate that people are saying that no agency reached out to Gary. If his family or friends would have come to us and said there was a problem, we would have tried to contact him and do a needs assessment. But we haven't heard from Gary since 1991."

But Parrish contends that Broward House and CenterOne must help people like Steinsmith. "They are the only two large AIDS agencies we have," she says. "If they can't help someone, then where are we as a community? There have to be hundreds of people like Gary."

On a breezy Monday after Thanksgiving, Steinsmith packed his bags at Fort Lauderdale hospital. He was finally going home.

For the second time in Judge Lerner-Wren's courtroom, he sat handcuffed to his chair -- a reminder of the criminal charges still pending against him. He told her simply that he felt fine thanks to a cocktail of antidepressants. Psychiatrist Sherrie Bieniek wrote in a release report that he would continue treatment on an outpatient basis and attend hospital group therapy three days a week.

As part of his treatment Bieniek suggested that Steinsmith should "resume his presence in [the] community."

Three representatives from Broward House, including Shidaker and clinician Joanne Hendee, were there to assure Lerner-Wren that Steinsmith would receive psychiatric home services. "We'll have a case manager come by his home on a regular basis and check whether he's taking his medication," Hendee said. "They'll also look for any strange behavior."

The judge appeared satisfied, ordering Broward House to explain in detail how it planned to stay in close contact with Steinsmith, emphasizing that she should be given regular reports on his progress.

Kent was also in the courtroom. He promised Steinsmith a shrimp lunch at Nathan's after the judge officially released him from the hospital.

"I just want to get back to doing what I do," says Steinsmith. "I want to start working with PWA [People with AIDS Coalition of Broward County]. When you're helping other people, you can forget about yourself for a while."

But less than a week after Steinsmith was released, he stopped showing up at the court-mandated hospital outpatient program. And his Broward House case manager says she dropped by his apartment to check on him but claims he told her not to come back.

"Gary stopped going to therapy because it was for people just beginning recovery," Shearn explains. "He's been sober for 15 years and didn't see the point. I explained to him that he simply had to do what was agreed to. As far as the case manager, Gary tells me he didn't say that to her. She showed up without making an appointment, and he was leaving. He told her to come back another time."

He's also retreating from media attention. He's far less open than he was months ago, and Shearn says he regrets the public scrutiny his situation invited. After several weeks at home, Steinsmith infrequently returned New Times calls. "I'm trying to move on. To be honest, I'm a little embarrassed." His voice is soft and trails off. He's too polite to say, "No more questions." And for the first time in months, it seems appropriate to leave Gary Steinsmith alone for a while.

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