Homeless woman ‘should never have died on street frightened and alone’

Catherine Kenny suffered from alcohol and drug problems
Catherine Kenny suffered from alcohol and drug problems

The family of a woman sleeping rough in Belfast said she should never have died “alone and frightened” in a shop doorway due to a shortage of mental health facilities.

Catherine Kenny, 33, who suffered from alcohol and drug problems, was found unconscious at the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane around 9am on March 19 last year, an inquest has heard.

‘Legal highs pose a very real danger to anyone who consumes them’

Coroner Joe McCrisken

Two off-duty nurses worked to save her life but the Downpatrick woman was pronounced dead at the RVH a short time later. She was the fifth homeless person to die on the streets of Belfast within a 10-week period.

A post-mortem examination revealed that Miss Kenny had a blood/alcohol level four times the legal limit for driving and had taken a “legal high” drug which has since been banned as a class 2 illegal substance.

Miss Kenny’s sister Lee-Maria Hughes, 37, said Catherine needed mental health intervention but “no one could take her” in the week before she died.

Mrs Hughes said: “My sister died on her own on the streets of our capital city four days later.”

Mrs Hughes also told coroner Joe McCrisken that her kind-hearted sister used to pinch money from their mother’s purse to buy food for stray dogs, but began to “go downhill” after her father, then mother passed away.

“It just got too much and she just lost her way,” Mrs Hughes added.

Speaking to the News Letter afterwards, Mrs Hughes said her sister might still be alive if she had access to a residential rehabilitation facility.

“They need to provide more facilities, for women particularly, with complex needs in Northern Ireland.”

Mrs Hughes said she “will never get over” Catherine’s death.

“It’s the day that nearly ended my world. Second to my wee boy she was my life and she should never, ever have died on the streets of Belfast, alone, frightened.

“She was using alcohol and drugs to escape her thoughts. People like Catherine are not just people lying there. They are somebody’s daughter and somebody’s sister and they need help, but it just isn’t available.”

Donna Connor of the Hope Outreach service got to know Miss Kenny well and said her death led to a reduction in the number of people living on the streets due to additional beds being made available.

“The numbers have dramatically reduced since this time last year” – from around 25 to just eight.

Mrs Connor added: “Catherine Kenny’s death has caused people to take action.”

Forensic scientist Dr Siobhan Kirk told the coroner that the synthetic cannabis MBMB-CHMICA – sometimes marketed as ‘Sky High’ – was responsible for 13 deaths across Europe between December 2014 and May 2016, and that the combination of the drug and alcohol was the likely cause of Miss Kenny’s death.

Commenting on the health care provision for people with similar problems, the coroner said: “It seems to me that more could have been done by those who have a responsibility to do so on our behalf.”

Mr McCrisken said so-called legal highs “pose a very real danger to anyone in society who consumes them,” and added: “I can’t emphasise this warning enough.”

The coroner went on to say: “I don’t want to be holding another inquest into a death from a legal high but I fear I will be.”

Despite hearing evidence from Miss Kenny’s family and other witnesses criticising the health care available, the coroner said he had been furnished with enough information to satisfy himself that she “did receive good care from the health authorities” at various times – including a number of detoxification procedures.

However, the coroner added, she “died in a doorway” and “I don’t have the answer how that can happen in 2016”.