Editorial: Those who should not be left to die alone

08:21, Sep 04 2011

No police record, no known next of kin, no mail, no benefit history. For 30 years 88-year-old Michael Clarke kept to himself in his Newtown bedsit. Some time last year he died the same way.

His remains were discovered in his bedsit at the grim Newtown Park Flats last week. Authorities believe he may have been dead for as long as 14 months.

The discovery has triggered an outpouring of dismay, but the discovery of a body in Wellington City Council accommodation is not an uncommon occurrence. As far back as 1997 former Wellington coroner Erika Kremic called upon the council to institute regular checks of its tenants. It is a call that has been echoed periodically by police who have to deal with the grisly remains when a death goes unnoticed.

But the council says there is a limit to what it can do. Council social portfolio leader Stephanie Cook said this week that staff tried to keep tabs on tenants and knocked on doors and visited them at least once a year. Yet many of the council's tenants valued their privacy and did not like intrusions. The newspapers plastered over interior windows in the Newtown Park complex bear out her words.

However, it is no more acceptable for bodies to lie around for weeks or months than it is to shoehorn the vulnerable into cramped, dilapidated tower blocks that reek of urine.

Tenants in the council's 40 housing complexes – a high proportion of whom are either elderly, immigrants, or suffer from physical and psychological disabilities – should be checked upon. Any who object should be informed that the checks are a condition of occupancy.

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To its credit the council is taking steps to improve the quality of its accommodation, much of it built in the 1960s to accommodate single workers.

In conjunction with the Government, it commenced a $400million upgrade of its housing stock in 2008. Interior walls have been knocked down to make bigger flats suitable for families, communal landings and long corridors have been removed to get rid of gathering places for undesirables, and communal gardens have been established to encourage neighbourliness. Already the Central Park flats at the bottom of the Brooklyn hill have been transformed and work has commenced on the three tower blocks that are to remain at the Newtown Park Flats.

But the revamp will take time and will not entirely solve the problem. As a provider of last resort housing, the council will always have antisocial tenants who object to anything they regard as scrutiny. It will also always have vulnerable tenants who are fearful and suspicious of authority. They may prefer to keep to themselves, but regular checks are preferable to the alternative – dying alone and unnoticed as Mr Clarke did.

In praise of ... Valerie Adams

A women's open competition shot weighs four kilograms. A full-size rugby ball is around 440 grams. Valerie Adams can throw a shot 21.24 metres, just shy of the distance from a rugby field's tryline to the drop-out line.

Many rugby players struggle to pass a ball that far. It has been a long time since New Zealand has had a red hot favourite to win back-to-back track and field Olympic gold.

Adams, who has just seized her third world championship shot put title in a row, is that prospect. Her extraordinary accomplishment has taken years of hard work and dedication. Last year, she tearfully parted ways with her long-time coach and mentor, Kirsten Hellier.

It was a painful separation, but one Adams – who parted from her husband the same year – said was necessary to continue achieving her goals. Now based in Switzerland, she credited her latest win to present coach Jean-Pierre Egger.

He was unable to make the championships in Daegu, but sent her some simple advice for the day of the final: "Throw as long as possible until you reach the stars." In her own words, she "smashed the crap out of it".

She is ever hungry to go further, and says she won't know her limit till she retires. At just 26, that could mean another golden decade for Kiwi fans to celebrate a true champion.

The Dominion Post