Man dead in Wellington flat for up to a year

00:17, Sep 01 2011
RICHARD HENARE
RICHARD HENARE: "It's a bit of a shock. To know we've just been walking around not knowing he needed help.''

Wellington City Council has launched an investigation into how pensioner Michael Clarke lay dead in his Wellington council flat for over a year without his neighbours or the council knowing.

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The 88-year-old's body was found only by chance – the block where he lived in Newtown Park Flats in Mansfield St, Newtown, is due to be demolished and council workers have been going door to door to make arrangements to shift tenants.

Wellington City Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said she was "very sad'' Mr Clarke's body lay undiscovered for such a long time.

"It serves as a reminder that we should all think about our neighbours welfare. Getting to know your neighbours - even if it just means knowing their name and saying hello - is an important way of keeping our community connected and strong.''

The council has now established a tenant support role within the Housing Unit especially to liaise with and look after elderly tenants.

After knocking at Mr Clarke's door several times over a number of weeks and leaving calling cards that were not collected, council staff alerted police.

OLIVENE TAYLOR
OLIVENE TAYLOR: "They used to check. The only time the council comes now is when someone's dead.''

On Wednesday last week, police arrived at his small bedsit at No16 and found his body.

Initial investigations by council staff indicated he could have died as long ago as last year. "Having done a check of some of the things in the flat ... unfortunately it could have been late last year," council spokesman Richard MacLean said yesterday.

Mr Clarke had lived for 30 years on the third floor of a dilapidated concrete building near Wellington Zoo known as "zoo block". He was known to like his privacy, and his rent and power bills continued to be paid by automatic payments. His death is not considered suspicious and has now been reported to the coroner.

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Council flats
ALONE TO THE END: Curtains are drawn in the unit, left, where Mr Clarke lay dead for months. Many of the flats around it are empty and the block is due to be demolished.

Yesterday the lace curtains at the bedsit were drawn and a cluster of flies buzzed outside the blue door. Resident Richard Henare, who has lived in the block for the past five years, said: "It's a bit of a shock.

"To know we've just been walking around not knowing he needed help. It gives you an uncomfortable feeling knowing that someone's passed away like that."

The elderly residents tended to keep to themselves, he said. "The whisper going around was that he might have been dead for months.

"There was no giveaway, though – no smell, nothing.

"The only time the council check up on you around here is if you're late on the rent."

Another resident, who wanted to be known only as Bob, remembered Mr Clarke as sticking to himself. "We're boxed away in here and the only way you get out is in a box," he said.

"We're put away here, we're just forgotten about. We live as hermits and we die as hermits."

Olivene Taylor has lived in the block for 33 years. "They used to check on older people and there used to be security," she said.

"The only time the council comes now is when someone's dead. They are supposed to check on people but they don't."

She gestured around the block: "One person was dead for seven days, another person over there for two weeks. It's pitiful really."

City council social portfolio leader Stephanie Cook said the council had various procedures that required staff to knock on doors and visit tenants at least once a year.

"We're checking to see what has happened – or possibly not happened – that has allowed this sad situation to occur.

"It obviously appears that the tenant's rent payments and power bill continued to be automatically paid for a number of months – so there was little to suggest something had gone wrong.

"The council's housing staff do try to keep tabs on all tenants to make sure they're OK – but many of our tenants like their privacy and do not like unnecessary intrusion into their lives."

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said it seemed Mr Clarke was an extremely private man who appeared to have no close family. "Physical isolation may be something that's more prevalent across all of society in this day and age – but it doesn't lessen the sadness of the situation.

"While we're still trying to ascertain all the facts about this incident, I think it's an appropriate time for us all to think about how we keep in touch with family and friends."

Ms Wade-Brown said she had asked for an update on the council's processes for contacting tenants. The Social Development Ministry confirmed Mr Clarke had been receiving his pension for the past year.

In 1999, Wellington police called for the council to check regularly on tenants after several cases in which the bodies of elderly people were not discovered for some time.

In one, police found the decomposed body of a woman who had lain dead in a Kilbirnie flat for eight weeks and in another a 75-year-old man lay undiscovered for a fortnight in the Newtown Park Flats.

The Dominion Post