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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Problem swept under the blanket

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Messages, flowers and empty alcohol bottles adorn the spot where Blanket Man would often sit in central Wellington. Photo / APNZ
Messages, flowers and empty alcohol bottles adorn the spot where Blanket Man would often sit in central Wellington. Photo / APNZ

There was something supremely distasteful about the so-called "outpouring of grief" for Ben Hana, who died in Wellington Hospital last Sunday at the age of 54.

Hana's nickname, Blanket Man, was itself a reminder of how enthusiastically he was romanticised: it was not a soubriquet he would have chosen, but it worked for the rest of us because it allowed us to trivialise who he was and, more important, what he represented.

The margin by which coverage of Hana's death missed the point was everywhere apparent. In a radio interview, Stephanie McIntyre, the director of Downtown Wellington City Ministry, which administered Hana's meagre income and offered other support, deplored the "cult identity" that had been bestowed on him and said it undermined efforts of organisations like hers to assist Hana and his ilk; the interviewer responded by asking whether she was planning to erect a memorial.

A television reporter showed how it was all about her by tweeting an RIP for someone with whom she had "crossed paths".

But she had crossed paths in only the literal sense of the phrase; almost all of us, like the priest and the Levite in the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, passed by on the other side.

Too many people too readily interpreted Hana's refusal of offers of support to mean that he was happy as he was. This, too, fitted with the maverick image of a happy renegade and ignored the suffering behind the "colourful character" facade - not to mention the scant housing options available to the homeless.

Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson was accused of playing politics by suggesting that a fitting memorial for Hana would be for us to address homelessness and access to mental health and addiction services. But what response could be better?

The comment that Hana "made his presence felt in people's lives" is fatuous. Let us pay serious attention to the pressing problems he exemplified, not the trivial kind we paid to him.

- Herald on Sunday

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