Shelter beds were available the night Donnie Handrahan died

·4 min read

The night leading to Donnie Handrahan's death November 3, 2021 - within hours of being refused emergency shelter in Charlottetown - two overflow beds remained unused at Salvation Army’s Bedford MacDonald House on Weymouth Street. The organization is contracted by government to deliver up to 12 beds at the house to men in need: 10 regular and 2 overflow for periods of increased need.

Documents obtained by the Graphic under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act show Salvation Army did not use overflow capacity in 2021 until after Handrahan died at 60 years old in the Hillsborough River.

This despite the Army turning men away from the house 196 times between February and December. At least 68 of these instances were due to capacity.

Handrahan had a long history of mental health troubles. He endured regular experiences of suicidal ideation and life-threatening instances of self-harm through his life. All after suffering severe abuse as a teen.

The night before he died, according to his peers, Handrahan lined up at Deacon House for emergency shelter and said, if he didn’t get a bed that night he might as well kill himself.

They thought he was joking and shrugged off the comment. Handrahan didn’t get a bed. He died in the Hillsborough River within hours.

The cause of Handrahan’s drowning has been reported as undetermined by the coroner according to his closest family members. The report also showed he was not intoxicated at his time of death.

It is unknown if Handrahan lined up at Bedford MacDonald House the night leading to his death, before trying to find shelter at Deacon House. Salvation Army did not respond to requests for information about events at the shelter or overflow bed usage data for 2021. Detailed January statistics were not available.

Generally, Salvation Army only open overflow beds once Bedford MacDonald House and Deacon House are full according late 2021 interviews with men who use the service, former Salvation Army staff and Shelley Cole, Acting Director of Supportive Housing for the Department of Social Services and Housing.

In November, men would often try to access Bedford MacDonald House first around 4:30 pm. Once 10 beds filled, remaining men were referred to Deacon House which opened around 8pm. Once Deacon House filled, anyone remaining could circle back to knock on Bedford MacDonald House’s door again or contact the emergency shelter line to potentially trigger access to Salvation Army’s two overflow beds.

The process of trekking back and forth between shelters or otherwise arranging to have the overflow beds open presented barriers to clients. Emergency shelter clientele are sometimes under the influence of mind-altering substances, may be struggling with cognitive, mental and physical health issues, they may not have access to a phone and they frequently face exhaustion as well as harsh weather elements.

Salvation Army Maritimes headquarters, based in Halifax, are either unaware all 12 beds aren’t used regularly or misleading in their description of operations at the Charlottetown shelter. In an email statement to the Graphic, the division’s communications representative, Lieutenant Gina Haggett, said: “Bedford MacDonald House is a 12-bed men’s shelter for those over the age of 18 ... To date, the only time we needed to reduce the number of beds was due to public health guidelines governing COVID-19 restrictions.”

Data provided to the Department of Social Services and Housing by Salvation Army shows capacity of 10 beds per night through the year. Opening the overflow beds was only reported in November and December, after Handrahan’s death.

Data obtained through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act also challenges Bedford MacDonald House’s operation as a low barrier shelter. Salvation Army has received $240,000 a year, since 2020, from the province to “accommodate an allowable tolerance of client intoxication (a harm reduction model).”

Data shows men were turned away for “extreme intoxication” in 63 cases which were recorded separately from turnaways due to behavioural issues on 21 occasions in 2021.

Salvation Army was also contracted to update policies, procedures and guidelines including safety responses when intoxication results in behaviour exceeding allowable tolerance.

Salvation Army did not discuss or provide the Graphic with copies of these. Nor did it respond to a request for incident reports, void of client information, detailing specific instances of men being denied shelter due to their level of intoxication.

In April of 2021, Salvation Army official Major Jamie Locke said clients are only turned away if they present a risk of harm to themselves or others.

Clients dispute this and say staff will regularly deny a bed if they present the slightest signs of intoxication.

Find more articles related to Salvation Army's delivery of an untendered $3.7million contract here:

This article has been updated to reflect that Donnie Handrahan drowned the morning of Nov 3 after being rejected from emergency shelter. In a previous copy, the Graphic erroneously reported he died at night.

Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic

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