Sunday, January 15, 2012

#1696 ... Blanket Man

An icon of Wellington has gone. Ben Hana .. the "Blanket Man"

A public service is being planned for Wellington's most famous vagrant and he will be buried in the capital, his daughter says.
Renee Temaari said funeral and burial plans for her father Ben Hana, also known as Blanket Man, were yet to be confirmed but would both happen in Wellington this week.

There would be a private ceremony for family, followed by a public service. She had talked to her father about two weeks ago on Courtenay Place.

"He was good - we talked, just the same as normal." Mr Hana had left behind no money and the family would welcome any donations towards funeral costs. "We were wondering how we're going to pay for it all,'' she said.

TRIBUTES: A tribute (the photo taken by PHIL REID/Dominion Post) to Mr Hana has sprung up on Courtenay Place, where he spent most of his days. He was a divisive figure in life, but in death there was a feeling of sadness among Monday morning commuters at the memorial today.

Some added their own tributes on the wall or posted newspaper clippings, while others just stopped and contemplated his passing. "He was a legend here ... he's just always been here. He meant a lot to people," one local said this morning. "Some people saw him as a nuisance at times, but a lot of people will miss him."

After years spent living on the street, he suffered from medical problems stemming from heavy alcohol use and malnutrition, lawyer Maxine Dixon said yesterday. While authorities had been concerned about his declining physical condition in the weeks before his death, his latest trip to hospital had been part of a regular three-month checkup. Ms Dixon went to the hospital yesterday morning to speak to Mr Hana's social worker about getting him a new blanket, and was expecting him to check out the same afternoon. He had seemed happy on Friday and Saturday, she said. She was unsure what had led to his sudden death, and a Wellington hospital spokeswoman would not give further details.

Wellington Community Ministry director Stephanie McIntyre, who saw Mr Hana every week, said she was "upset and shocked" at the news. "It's just one of those really sad situations ... I know that a lot of people made many efforts to engage with Ben and to support him, and by and large he chose not to accept their support. "There had been times when he had been offered housing and that sort of thing. What a sad situation when someone is so unwell that they would choose the life he did." She believed Mr Hana had begun to believe in his "iconic status" as Blanket Man, and felt he belonged on the street. "It gave him an identity ... he latched on to that whole notion of a public persona, and that became more important to him than being well."

Mr Hana turned to a life on the street in the late 1990s. He could most often be seen sitting on the Courtenay Place pavement, clad in a loincloth and blanket.

Mr Hana was a polarising figure in Wellington.Many deplored his dishevelled state and the revealing views he provided to passers-by, especially on a hot day. But plenty of others had a soft spot for him, buying him food and proudly pointing him out to visitors as the city's only mascot.Facebook and Wikipedia sites have been set up in his honour, there is a Twitter account in the name Blanket Man and at least one song has been written about him.
In 2007, Victoria University got in on the act, with a lecture called World Famous in Wellington: Blanket Man as Contemporary Celebrity.
But it hasn't always been this way for Mr Hana. In 2010 The Dominion Post revealed he had once lived an ordinary life as a married father of four, and held down a job.However, a series of personal disasters, including killing a friend while drink-driving, led him to rock bottom. He split with his wife, who died a few years ago, and lost contact with his children.After spending time in Tokoroa, he arrived back in Wellington in the late 1990s and racked up a list of convictions, pages long.In various appearances at Wellington District Court he defended his nakedness as "moon bathing", claimed he smoked cannabis for "peace" and alleged the car he was caught drink-driving in was a waka.On another memorable occasion he was deemed unfit to fulfil his community service work because he would not wear shoes, and had not done so for seven years. But perhaps most famously, a judge was forced to issue one of the country's more bizarre bail conditions  that Mr Hana wear underwear at all times. "I was walking down Courtenay Place and I'm sure he was exposing his genitals," the judge said. "It's just not something the public should have to tolerate."

In late 2010 Mr Hana was released from a stint in Wellington Hospital's psychiatric ward. Markedly more coherent after his release, went back to his spot in Courtenay Place but his health declined and he was admitted to hospital at the weekend. He never returned to his favourite corner, and while some may rejoice at his now permanent absence it is likely many more will feel a tinge of sadness next time they walk down Courtenay Place.

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