The brother of a homeless man who died in a bus shelter fire in rural Nova Scotia two weeks ago says his family is anxious to find out what happened to their relative, but respects the police investigation.
Ronald Lawrence said Wednesday that despite hearing little from police on what may have caused the death of Harley Lawrence, a 62-year-old drifter, they understand the probe will take time and want people to stop spreading rumours.
“We’re anxious to find out and the family wants answers, but the thing is, we gotta be patient,” he said of the ongoing police investigation. “They have to make sure they do their job right and the family respects that.”
Police say the death is suspicious, but have not released the findings of an autopsy done last month to determine the cause of death. The Mounties also have not said whether the fire at about 2 a.m. was accidental.
Ronald said his brother drifted away from the family when Harley was about 25 years old and developed an unspecified mental health problem. He said he would disappear for years at a time before anyone would hear from him and then push people away who offered help.
He said he last saw him about seven years ago when Ronald tracked him down to let him know their mother had died.
“He just shoved us away and it was very heartbreaking,” he said, as his brother Maynard — the oldest in the family of nine kids — looked on. “But the family wants everyone to remember that he did have a family.”
Some who knew Lawrence said he resisted help and showed little interest in taking advantage of programs set up to aid the homeless. He had always rebuffed efforts by volunteers at the Evangeline Club to have coffee or come for a visit, a spokeswoman said.
Chaplain John Andrew met Lawrence in 2005 through the Open Arms emergency shelter in Kentville, but said he still knew little about him.
Andrew, the managing director of the shelter, said his group has heard from people across the country and that Harley’s death has shed some light on the issue of homelessness in the area.
“We don’t want this to be about any one person,” he said, adding that two other people were sleeping on the streets of Berwick the night he died. “We want to highlight the fact that these issues are happening every night.”
Some residents of the small community had trouble accepting the man who had become a controversial figure in a town that wasn’t used to seeing people living so visibly on its streets.
Lawrence usually sat outside the local Tim Hortons and the bus stop or would wander down Berwick’s main street with his belongings packed in a large plastic bag.
It was a sight many in the community of about 2,500 people did not like, according to Mayor Don Clarke, who fielded several calls from residents who wanted to know if anything could be done to make him leave.
A man and a woman who were delivering newspapers on Oct. 23 said they saw two young men fill a container with gas at a station in Berwick about 10 minutes before the fire started.
Shannon Taylor and her boyfriend had finished bundling their papers outside a gas station and were heading down the town’s main street when she saw flames rising from inside the shelter.
Taylor, 32, said she initially thought they were coming from a pile of leaves, but realized that it was Lawrence, who had been using the structure as his nighttime refuge. She said the men looked to be in their late teens or early 20s and headed in the direction of the shelter after buying gas.
Police wouldn’t comment on the claims.