BERWICK, N.S. – A homeless man who died last Wednesday in a grisly fire inside a bus shelter where he slept in this small Nova Scotia town is being remembered by community members as a kind man who struggled with mental illness.
Residents shared memories of Harley Gordon Lawrence on Saturday night during a candlelight vigil held outside a grocery store in front of the burned-out bus stop where the homeless man had become a fixture in his last months.
Members of Lawrence’s family sat in a semi-circle around the shelter, as speakers told stories about the 62-year-old man. Several hundred people holding flashlights and candles stood behind them, filling the parking lot of the grocery store.
Chaplain John Andrew, who knew Lawrence, told those gathered that man’s life touched many people as he sat in front of local restaurants with a cup for coins and a bag of old clothes.
“Through Harley, may our hearts go out to those who have struggled to fit into society,” said Andrew, who runs the Open Arms Shelter in nearby Kentville. “In Harley, may we see our own frailty and know more deeply we’re all essentially the same.”
Kelly Grant, of Somerset, N.S., said she often brought Lawrence coffee, blankets and food and would drive by most nights to check on how he was doing.
Grant, who organized the vigil, said word of the fire devastated her.
“I lost part of my life,” she said. “He was just such a kind, sweet man … I still check all of his spots as I drive down the road.”
But others were reluctant to accept Lawrence into the community and wanted him to leave, said 37-year-old Susan Vanderhoning of Berwick.
“He didn’t get a lot of help that he could have,” she said. “People didn’t like it because it’s kind of a middle class, seniors community. … Maybe they didn’t like him being here sometimes.”
After the vigil, hundreds of candles were placed in the shelter, and a stone bench dedicated to Lawrence was unveiled at the site.
Lawrence was living under a bridge in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley about seven years ago when a family living in the area offered to take him in.
Lawrence, who seems to have drifted from one community to another in the province, took the man up on the chance and settled in for a time before he began to cause friction in the home, says Kevin Graham, who is friends with the family who took him in.
Graham, a therapist in the valley, said his friends asked if he would be willing to allow Lawrence to come live with him and his family on their farm about 15 kilometres outside Kentville.
He agreed and said Lawrence was open to the idea, but didn’t want to come inside their house, opting instead to sleep in their barn or in a tent on their lawn.
“He would always keep you at a distance,” he said in an interview. “We had some room in the house, but he wouldn’t come in the house. … He would come in for the occasional meal, but as far as sleeping in the house, he wouldn’t do that.”
Graham said Lawrence showed clear signs of a mental illness the therapist recognized as schizophrenia.
He said he was paranoid and fearful of people finding out information about him. Graham, 65, said they tried to encourage him to get medication, but he refused because he didn’t want to reveal basic information about himself.
Still, Graham said the private man was a good worker who was so thorough he would over-mow the lawns and tidy up the u-pick fields.
The relationship lasted for several months, but ended when Lawrence became offensive and said inappropriate things to the family. Graham said he asked him to leave.
“He broke down and wept and that really touched me in a sense of feeling how attached he had become to us,” he said.
Graham said it appeared to fit a pattern that Lawrence perpetuated by settling into a place and then being asked to move along after people became frustrated by his behaviour.
“He wanted to connect at times and be apart, but felt best apart,” he said. “He was a bit like a porcupine with a soft underbelly. If you took the time and you were able to withstand the surface stuff, he was likeable and you could trust him.”
Shannon Taylor, a woman who was delivering newspapers early Wednesday morning, said she is haunted by memories of the scene at the bus stop on the night Lawrence died.
At first, she said she believed the scene was a pile of burning leaves, but she then realized the man she’d passed many evenings was on fire.
Taylor said about 10 minutes before the blaze, she saw two young men, possibly in their late teens or early 20s, fill a small jug with gas at another station near the shelter.
She said she told police one of the young men pumped the gas, the other paid for it and they then ran off quickly in the direction of the shelter.
Police have deemed Lawrence’s death suspicious, and the medical examiner’s office has requested further information. But the RCMP have said they won’t comment on the accounts while the investigation continues.
With files from Alison Auld in Halifax