I felt a real sense of sadness hearing the news of the death of Ben Hana, known to most Wellingtonians, and others as Blanket Man. Like many Wellingtonians I had a few conversations with Ben over the years. Early on in Cuba Mall when he used to talk a lot more, and more latterly when he enjoyed the sunshine in Courtenay Place, with less to say, but still a nod of acknowledgement.
Ben was a polarising person. For many he was an iconic figure, part of the unique and quirky Wellington. A number of people had close relationships with him, and supported him with gifts and food. The gift of an IPod a few years ago saw him rocking out even more in his own universe. For others how he looked and acted was affronting and challenging and they felt threatened by him.
He was the face of homelessness in Wellington. It is true to say that he shunned the idea of moving off the streets in recent years, and indeed of taking on much in the way of formalised help. He was beyond that, and wanted none of it. But this is a misleading view of the experience of the homeless. For most of the homeless in Wellington it is not such a choice, and indeed for Ben earlier in his life as things went wrong, and he became unwell mentally, and his addictions developed I am sure he would have liked and benefited from some more support and somewhere to call home.
Homelessness is not necessarily about sleeping on the streets, its about not having a stable place to live, to be your base. It is often associated with mental illness and addiction, and there is far too much of it in our city. A number of organisations, especially the Downtown Community Ministry do a great job supporting those who are homeless, but we are falling short.
We have a real shortage of emergency accomodation, affordable accomodation and accomodation for those with mental illness. The different agencies involved are getting better at working together to find solutions, but still need to be more coordinated and flexible if we are to truly address these issues. Its not just government either, the community has a responsibility too. Many private landlords will not take on those who have a history of mental illness. I will be continuing to advocate and organise on these issues in Wellington. This is a nationwide issue though, and I believe it merits a select committee inquiry, as Labour has pushed for in recent years.
For me the best memorial for Ben would be that we as a city and community come together to say that we will look after and look out for all the residents of the city. We will make it a priority to deal with homelessness and the issues that lie behind it. We will respect those who are homeless for who they are, and work with them to give them real choices that will address the issues that cause their struggles and put them back in charge of their own lives. RIP Ben.