Blanket Man’s back story – what’s really going on with our homeless

Homelessness made headlines when Wellington’s Ben Hana died earlier this year, but the word has a whole different meaning for those working with vulnerable people, writes TENNESSEE MANSFORD.

BLANKET MAN: Ben Hana sits on Courtney Place, which was decked with in tributes after his death.

HE walks along the city footpath slowly, his head down and his body sliding past the shop windows, as if he is trying to hide or pass unnoticed.

A scarf hangs tightly around his neck. Tied to each end are two supermarket bags, one with a stained sleeping bag leaking out the side. Earmuffs sit on top of a bed of curls tightly sprung, unlike the rest of his body. His face is masked by a matted beard. His shoulders are heavy with the burden of bags. Worn sandals escape his feet with each step as rain hammers the streets. He continues to shuffle forward, never looking up.

Wellington’s streets are this man’s home. He is evidence of a largely invisible but growing crisis of homelessness in New Zealand. Figures are scant, but one Wellington agency reported almost double as many homeless people have walked through their doors in the past year.

New Zealand Coalition to End Homeless says this country sits far behind others in the western world. The inter-agency organisation reveals in a study funded by Wellington Regional Health, that Australia,

America, United Kingdom and most of Western European are ahead of us with their commitment to end homelessness.

By funding strategies to prevent homelessness and early intervention, they have made the issue not only a national and local government issue, but society’s.

Downtown Community Ministry manager Stephanie McIntyre says the bleak picture is being ignored by New Zealand’s Government and the frontline organisations are sick of a lack of funding and scarce housing for the vulnerable.

McIntyre says it appears New Zealand is moving backwards. The word “homelessness” was not included in National’s manifesto for last November’s election, and Housing New Zealand’s operations will be switched from accessible offices to an 0800 phone line in April.

What is the extent of our homelessness? And why is New Zealand lagging behind?

Ben Hana, or “Blanket Man” as he was known, was one New Zealander whose name became synonymous with the word ”homeless” and who divided opinion amongst Wellingtonians. He lived and died on the streets, but his funeral was likened to the Oscars.

The man clad in only a loin cloth and his infamous blanket, died in January this year aged 54. His last 20-odd years were spent submerged in addiction on Wellington’s streets.

Ben Hana – or as he preferred, Brother – originally came to Wellington from Tokoroa, leaving a wife and four children behind , with activist intentions. He was intent on the Government handing over land to the disempowered so they could live and grow off it.

But Hana was by no means a typical homeless person. He chose to refuse housing offers by agencies and it was his choice to leave his home in Tokoroa and take up a life on Wellington’s streets.

Bronwyn McGovern was one of the few people who got to know Ben Hana closely. She spent more than 400 hours occupying the footpath next to him for her sociology PhD studies at Victoria University.

Her blonde hair stops just short of her shoulders and she wears glasses with diamantes speckled down each side. Her lips are bright red and she wears a black and white polka dot dress with red leather boots, yet she hung out on the streets with the “wild man”.

“I’ve got some amazing, insightful quotes from him, where he calls people working ants and says he hopes they remember to breathe, because they are all so busy.

“It is a very interesting perspective sitting on the footpath looking at the city,” she laughs. “People don’t usually sit on the ground in the central city, and it felt weird.

“Very few people got past the ‘perimeters of the blanket’, I call it. Ben had this way of using the blanket to keep people at bay – like you put your towel out at the beach, it defines your territory.”

Not many people were allowed into Hana’s life. He lived in the public eye, but kept his personal life hidden.

She pulls out some glossy photos of the wild-looking man that were taken over six years of observation. She describes the significance of each. She says he loved ice-cream and he also had a sense of humour that could light up a room.  It was his coping mechanism, making light of his situation.

“I was so fond of him,” she smiles when I ask how she dealt with his death. “I was really sad, in all honesty. I would go down there and spend time with him and sometimes I would get the only laugh I was going to get that week hanging out with him.”

McGovern says despite the bling and the lippy, she was often mistaken for a homeless woman. “The first time it ever happened, we were sitting on the ground outside the old United Video store on Courtney Place and this guy came along. He had a paper bag and as he walked past he chucked two chunks of bread at us like we were a couple of birds.

“He went one for you and one for you. I went ‘oh, my God, he thinks I’m destitute and need a hunk of bread’.

“Another time I was having dinner at Logan Brown with a friend– not that I go to Logan Brown that often,” she laughs, “and this woman nudged her friend and said ‘what’s Mrs Blanket Man doing here?’  ‘Blanket woman’ I got called.  My kids were mortified, as you can imagine.”

But says she will never know exactly what it feels like to be living on the streets. “There is a huge difference. I have a key that unlocks a door to a house to go back to – but I definitely got a taste for what it feels like to be on the street.”

Through his sheer sustained presence year after year, she says, he became more of a fixture and identity than an “icon”’. McGovern believes through her studies that society – especially the media – makes a judgment on who is deserving and who is undeserving.

“We have to stop categorising people into either good or bad people. I In Ben’s case, he was dirty, deviant and dangerous. We need to be careful not to perpetuate negative stereotypes.”

Ben’s funeral was an example of this, she says. “The media presence was disturbing. They even went up to the gravesite.”

Fetu Tamapeau is a member of the Wellington City Council Pacific Advisory Group, which has set up a petition with the Wellington City Council calling for a Ben Hana memorial as a symbol of Wellington’s commitment to the vulnerable.

She felt helpless reading about Blanket Man’s death in January and asked how society can allow this to happen, right under our noses?

“We need to debate how to solve the issue, because if we look at Mr Hana’s life, we don’t know how to deal with it, do we?”

Tamapeau wants the memorial to salvage a sad situation by putting it into a positive light. “A symbol such as a memorial promising action would be a reminder to us all that we are responsible for caring for our communities, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

“I think we can use his so-called iconic status to carry on the debate on how we should care for homeless and other vulnerable groups among us.”

The Community Ministry’s McIntyre says for the most part homelessness is hidden in New Zealand and that’s why people don’t believe it is an issue. Those stuck in homelessness move between rough sleeping – on the streets or in cars – to couch surfing, then to spending a few nights in a shelter.

She stresses it is important for people to understand homelessness is not just living on the streets. Many experience homelessness, including people or families living in overcrowded houses, couch surfers, or people living in cars.

Although she says homelessness is becoming more evident in New Zealand, there is no way to gauge how many Kiwis are living rough or as nomads.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Statistics New Zealand established a definition for homelessness. It is defined “as living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are with shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing”.

As a result, agencies such as the Downtown Community Ministry (DCM) can now  gather data on how many vulnerable walk through their doors.

In the second quarter of 2011, those supported by the ministry increased by 17%. Of the 412 classed as vulnerable, 188 were recorded as homeless.

The number of homeless to walk through the agencies doors in Wellington increased by 40% that quarter

If more agencies helping the homeless are able to capture statistics, the true depth of the issue will be revealed.

The NZ Coalition report echoes that there is no clear picture or overview of the nature and extent of homelessness in this country. The problem has a low profile as a policy issue, partly due to low public awareness.

By comparison, Australia has around 100,000 people homeless on any given night. The Australian government has researched the extent of homelessness and has found that more families, youth, older people and indigenous are needing homes.

Under Kevin Rudd’s Labor leadership, legislation was set up to halve overall homelessness by 2020 and by 2020 to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it.

A National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) – set up in 2009 – provided $6.1 billion to spend over five years on social housing, assistance to people in the private rental market, support and accommodation for people who are homeless or at risk, and assistance with buying houses.

Eight million dollars of this was set aside for services to prevent and reduce homelessness, and four hundred million dollars was put towards increasing the number of affordable and supported houses for people that would otherwise be homeless.

“They have taken the bull by the horns in a way we haven’t,” says McIntyre, “They are aware of the size and scale of the issue, they have put serious money into the project, they have made legislation and specific targets, and they are funding it.”

The Australian Government established three strategies for federal and regional government to combat the issue:

  1. Turning off the tap: services to intervene early to prevent homelessness.
  2. Improving and expanding service: services will be more connected and responsive to achieve sustainable housing, improve economic and social participation, and end homelessness for their “clients”.
  3. Breaking the cycle: people who become homeless will move quickly through the crisis system to stable housing with the support they need so that homelessness does not recur.

Next year, the Australian Government will discuss if the interim goals are being met.

In 2008, the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness called for a national inquiry into the issue here, although when Labour mirrored the need for the inquiry in 2009 they were in Opposition.

Mana, Green, Labour and National parliamentary candidates were all invited by the coalition to an annual general meeting in Hamilton. The inter-agency was pleased that the Mana, Green and Labour’s manifestos included the word “homelessness”, but less so that National’s did not.

Instead, an inquiry into boarding houses was implemented by National, which did expose terrible conditions. Housing Minister Phil Heatley says a full report on the issue will be done, but did not identify exactly when.

Meanwhile, Wellington City Council is heading an inquiry into housing affordability.

The Productivity Commission has found Wellington house prices have increased 98% in the last decade. In December, 2001, the median house price was $195,250, but today that figure has soared to $387,000. The national average rent payment is $333, compared to Wellington’s $398.

McIntyre says while this can be looked at as a positive step forward, it has been tough to find housing for those who need it.

The council provides more than 2300 social housing units that are directed at those on low incomes, and McIntyre says agencies such as the DCM are supported by them.

“Wellington City Council is far and away the most supportive city council in New Zealand, but they get no help from central Government and that is the issue.”

The council is in the midst of producing a snapshot of Wellington’s homelessness, with the goal of identifying homeless needs and what responses are required to meet these needs. This social map will then be passed on to the Government.

Meanwhile, Labour housing spokeswoman  Annette King has slammed National’s decision to shut down Housing New Zealand  offices from April and to redirect clients through a national 0800 phone line.

It has also been attacked by voluntary organisations that work hard to get the vulnerable into housing.

David Zussman, director of the South Auckland housing charity Monte Cecilia Housing Trust – who works with homeless South Auckland families – told the Sunday Star-Times everything has become so impersonal, and many people will struggle with a phone call to access it.

“Housing New Zealand has backed off and their minister has said ‘that’s fine, hands off, nothing to do with us any more’. HNZ used to engage with us. We weren’t 100 per cent happy, not even close, but the point is if HNZ are stopping services, who is filling the gap? Nobody. It’s depressing…we are going backwards.”

McIntyre stresses the biggest issue that needs addressing is the huge lack of affordable housing and safe accommodation.

“It’s an issue that’s been mounting and mounting and there’s no indication that we are getting an increase in affordable accommodation. All the evidence we are getting is that Housing New Zealand is falling apart at the seams and they have got less involved with people.”

The case of Million Dollar Murray shows that homelessness is an issue that affects us all. Million Dollar Murray, an article by Malcolm Gladwell published in The New Yorker magazine, tells the story of a homeless man named Murray who lived on the streets of Reno, Nevada.

Over the 10 years he was on the street and through his admissions to hospital and jail, he cost taxpayers one million dollars. He was costing society $100,000 a year. So, what if he was put into a boarding house at a cost of $50,000 a year? Would that have not only benefited Murray but society?

McIntyre asks how much Ben Hana would have cost us. “It cost a great deal for him to be left homeless.”

He was in court regularly, broke the law by smoking cannabis, indecently exposing himself, was the subject of complaints as well as police investigations, went to prison, ran up hospital costs, and also had a lengthy stay at Ward 27’s psychiatric ward.

McIntyre says the best way forward is to pull all the strings together to reduce fragmentation amongst councils and provide a strategy.

Jenny Rains, manager of City Communities and Grants at the Wellington City Council, agrees.

She says the main concern is that central Government is not committed to tackling homelessness.

“It is assumed we don’t have a problem,” she says “The DCM’s collection of detailed stats is helping change this and providing the evidence needed to demonstrate the real level of need.”

The New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness has put together a paper with Wellington Regional Health recommending ways the issue can be improved.  Its framework consists of seven key areas with 38 recommendations under each of those headings.

But it says if homelessness is to be eradicated in our society, it will require more than emergency accommodation, night shelters and soup kitchens. It will need a strategy to combat the social exclusion that leads to homelessness, and programmes that support people to maintain housing in the long-term.

It will need the commitment and leadership of central and local government in partnership with specialist service providers to implement local homelessness strategies.

In the words of Malcom Gladwell , the author of Million Dollar Murray: “It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.”


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