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N.S. town anguished by homeless man’s death in suspicious fire

Berwick, N.S., will hold a vigil for the late Harley Lawrence, who had been the town’s only homeless person.

Nancy Kelly/

Harley Lawrence was the only homeless person in the Annapolis Valley town of Berwick, N.S., and for the past eight months, he lived in the bus shelter on Commercial Street.

Early on Wednesday morning, the RCMP and fire department found the 62-year-old dead after they were called to a fire there. Police are investigating and autopsy results have not been released.

The community of 2,500 is in shock – many worry that they did not do enough for Mr. Lawrence, who simply showed up in their town last spring. Others are concerned, too, that Berwick is attracting national media attention for the mysterious death of a homeless man and not its quaint Valley charms. Media reports said some residents tormented the man.

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Shannon Taylor, who works overnight delivering The Chronicle Herald newspaper, is haunted by what she witnessed early that morning when she saw the bus shelter ablaze.

She noticed two teenage boys filling a jug with gasoline at the local gas station. Within minutes, "I seen the bus shelter on fire. Just like that," she told The Globe and Mail. She was with her partner at the time; both have given statements to investigators.

Police said on Friday that developments are unlikely over the weekend. A vigil is planned Saturday for Mr. Lawrence in the parking lot of the Foodland, near the bus shelter.

"We all feel very remorseful about this thing," said John Prall, a town councillor. "It really hit us hard. … It's a helplessness, I guess, that really frustrates you as to what should have been done."

Mr. Lawrence was an oddity in town, sitting outside the Tim Hortons, the bank or the Subway, hoping people would throw some money in his cup. At night, he would sleep in the bus shelter, Mr. Prall said.

Some residents gave him money and food; others wished he would go away. Recent news reports said some people were wondering, with the nights becoming colder, what would happen to him. Town officials and police were looking for a solution.

John Andrew, the chaplain of the Open Arms Ministry, which operates an emergency shelter and other services for people at risk in nearby Kentville, tried to help.

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He knew Mr. Lawrence for eight years, since he first showed up in the area. People befriended him, gave him odd jobs and shelter. At one time he lived in a tent in a family's back yard.

Over the years, Mr. Andrew said Mr. Lawrence bounced around from town to town and lived for a time in Halifax. He was a jack of all trades, who was born in a small corner of the Valley and once was married.

Mr. Andrew said family members told him Mr. Lawrence's mental-health issues began in the late 1970s.

In the winter of 2004, he slept on a cot in a Kentville family's basement. The couple, who are devastated by his death, spoke to The Globe and Mail but asked not to be named. They described him as caustic but funny and exceedingly private. Mr. Lawrence helped renovate a couple of bathrooms. He also shovelled their snow and ate dinner with them every night.

That spring, he moved on, but they tried to keep tabs on him.

Mr. Andrew said he saw Mr. Lawrence last week and he was not interested in help.

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"He definitely became progressively withdrawn," Mr. Andrew said. "He would just plunk himself down on the sidewalk, hunched over, just lifeless."

Valerie Davis of the Annapolis Valley District Health Authority's mental health and addiction services said the region has protocols to deal with people with mental health issues who want help.

"Our services are based on the principle of being voluntary, whether you are ill or not can be determined if you are willing to access the treatment services available," she said. "If you are not interested or not willing to access those services, then the system is pretty limited in what they do from there."

RCMP Sgt. Alain LeBlanc said police had no reason to intervene with Mr. Lawrence as there were no reports that he was a threat to himself or to others.

This isn't good enough for Mr. Andrew. He ran a year-round shelter in Kentville for four years, but he and his volunteers "simply burned out," he said. Now he runs an emergency shelter and winter program for 60 to 80 people.

Mr. Andrew called on the newly elected Liberal Party to come up with a "collaborative plan to rescue people who are unable to care for themselves."

"There has to be a way to do it," he says. " We have reacted so strongly to the institutional approach that what we've done is abandon people in need."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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