The man behind the blanket

UNRUGGED: Ben Hana in the underpants that a judge ordered him to wear.
Fairfax
UNRUGGED: Ben Hana in the underpants that a judge ordered him to wear.

An icon - or inscrutable menace? After the best part of a decade sleeping rough in the city, Blanketman is now off the streets, with a judge ordering he be made a mental health patient.

While housed in Wellington Hospital's psychiatric ward he will have clean clothes, regular meals and no access to drink and drugs - a far cry from the bedraggled homeless man usually found in Courtenay Place, wrapped in a tatty blanket and loin cloth, even on the city's coldest days of the year.

Depending on who you talk to, Hana is either a quirky character who's world famous in Wellington and further afield, or an unwelcome vagrant, as suited office workers step around him as they stride along Courtenay Place.

STREETSCAPE: A work by artist A H Clemens shows Blanketman in one of his Courtenay Place haunts.
STREETSCAPE: A work by artist A H Clemens shows Blanketman in one of his Courtenay Place haunts.

He has his fans, presumably the people who have set up Myspace, Facebook and Wikipedia internet sites in his honour. There is a Twitter account in the name Blanketman, at least one song has been written about him and you can buy a T-shirt emblazoned with his cartoon image.

During the debate over the proposed Wellywood sign near the airport, one wag suggested an image of Hana should adorn the site. Busloads of tourists have been known to drive by for a sighting of Blanketman. You've seen him perched on a kerb, legs in the gutter, sometimes charming, sometimes abusive - usually stoned or drunk, or both.

Bus drivers fear running over him in the kerb and a judge has banned him from sitting near bus lanes. One day he sat in the middle of Dixon St, forcing drivers to steer around him.

Then there was the time another judge was forced to issue one of this country's most bizarre bail conditions - that Hana wear underwear at all times. Judge Tom Broadmore rejected Hana's lawyer's claim that her client wore "high-risk clothing".

"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."

Now there is no Blanketman to tolerate - he has been declared a mental health patient and is off the streets. Two psychiatrists who had assessed the 53-year-old's fitness to plead and stand trial on his latest charges had been expected to say he was not mentally fit - but they changed their minds, saying he was capable of communication.

Last week, in Wellington District Court, Judge Paul Barber made an order under the Mental Health Act to send Hana to the hospital's ward 27. He will be assessed, treated, and discharged when he is considered well enough by doctors.

Hana had initially told the court through his lawyer Cathie Sheat that he did not want to be medicated or treated. But when offered a hearing to sort out the matter he agreed and said, "Go and do it."

Judge Barber, acting on the contents of the latest psychiatric report, said his concern was Hana's wellbeing. "I think for his own interests he should enter ward 27 and I agree with the psychiatrists' views."

Hana had pleaded guilty to six charges of possessing cannabis and drug utensils, two of breaching the local liquor ban and one each of disorderly behaviour and breaching bail. He appeared in court in a white T-shirt and without his blanket. It had been washed for him to take to hospital.

He has been psychiatrically assessed before but this is believed to be the first time he has been admitted to hospital as a result.

Ms Sheat said Hana was lucid and able to make jokes on the day of his appearance, after a brief stint in police custody.

He is no stranger to a cell. It is understood his list of criminal convictions stretches to 17 pages.

Life wasn't always this way for Blanketman. He was born in Inglewood's maternity hospital on February 8, 1957, and named Bernard.

His father was Dennis Hana, described on the birth certificate as a quarter-caste Maori of Ngati Rahiri descent and his mother was Mapu Hana, a full-blooded Maori of Ngati Patu.

Bernard's cousin Charles Hana grew up in Taranaki near the family. Mapu Hana was a Jehovah's Witness and family life for the Hanas was "strict and disciplined", Charles says.

Ben Hana had a sister and two brothers - Tony, a fisherman based in Nelson, and another who had died. His sister lives in China.

"[Ben] would have been the black sheep in the family," Charles says. "I can't recall any of his siblings being involved in the justice system."

By his teenage years, by which time Ben's father had died, he was involving himself in political causes, especially if they were Maori- related.

"I don't think he was necessarily involved in political movements . . . but anything that sparked an interest for him to go and debate about. He was a deep thinker and he would never get too close to people."

Even then, he had a "touch of insanity", Charles says. Ben would have been 15 or 16 when he left home.

The cousins lost touch after that, with Ben moving around the country a lot, but occasionally passing through Taranaki. Charles last saw him during a trip to Wellington about three years ago, when he spotted him in a bank doorway.

"He was in denial. I would say, 'You know who I am' and he wouldn't respond . . . I was hoping I could get some more information out of him - why he was doing this and [to tell him] there was no need to do what he was doing."

Charles says the fact his cousin ended up living rough on the streets is "quite incomprehensible" to his family.

"He was never brought up in an abusive family life."

Older brother Tony says the family had a "typical 60s sort of bringing up", moving around Taranaki while their father worked in dairy factories.

"If you got up to mischief, you got a whack."

Ben Hana largely lost contact with the family after leaving home, but Tony remembers him "hanging around the gangs" and working in the Waitara freezing works.

At some point he met his wife-to- be, Caroline, who already had a daughter. The couple would go on to have four children of their own.

Tony says he was unaware his younger brother was married with children, until he ran into him in Wellington about 20 years ago.

By the late 1980s, when Mapu Hana died, Ben and Caroline and the five children were living in Mangakino, where he worked in the forestry industry.

A neighbour in Mangakino says she lived down the road from Ben Hana and his young family up to 30 years ago, and he was living in the town before that.

Though she does not remember him working, he was not noticeably eccentric then, she says, suggesting "drugs possibly addled his brain" since.

Anah Pedersen, a cousin of Hana's wife, Caroline, says the family has lost contact with Hana, who moved from Mangakino when the couple separated in the mid-1990s. Caroline took the children with her to Auckland.

Hana would be unaware his wife died a few years ago and he has lost contact with his children, she says.

Tony Hana remembers the break- up ended badly, with charges laid against his brother, who ended up in jail.

He briefly followed his family to Auckland, where he worked on construction sites but by this point - possibly dating back as far as his gang-connection days - his shift of mind had begun, Tony says.

He is not sure what triggered the change in his brother. "It's puzzled me."

He ran into him about two years ago in Wellington. "He was way out in la-la land."

Tokoroa detective Rick Rudolph remembers Hana arriving in the area in the late 1990s from "out of nowhere". "He used to have a blanket and a pair of pants on and that was life."

Mr Rudolph remembers a court volunteer, Ron Baker, taking Hana under his wing and offering him a place to sleep. However, it was not clear if the offer was ever accepted.

"I would rate him as one of those likeable rogues. Don't get me wrong, he could be a pain," Mr Rudolph says. "He was really a novelty for Tokoroa."

Most police officers in town at that point remember dealings with Hana, but usually for non-criminal matters.

Tokoroa community constable Jaks Sherwood remembers him wearing up to seven layers of tattered jeans at a time and living in the back of an old red panel van, which was impounded after he parked it outside the courthouse with no warrant of fitness or registration.

He gave his address to police as "the sawdust pits" - a site on the road to Mangakino where trucks from the local logging industry dumped sawdust.

Like Mr Rudolph, Ms Sherwood remembers Hana appearing from out of nowhere and placed him in the town up to the year 2000.

One version of history suggests that Tokoroa police helped arrange for his transport to Wellington, though neither Mr Rudolph nor Mrs Sherwood have heard this story.

Before his arrival in Wellington, Ben Hana was no stranger to the court system, and already had several court convictions.

His most serious conviction - under the name Terrence Kingi - was from April 3, 1979, when he was found guilty of driving with excess breath alcohol causing death.

Details are sketchy about the fatal crash, which happened in the Whanganui area. It is understood that the person killed was his best friend.

Hana now has a massive list of convictions - mostly for cannabis, driving offences and minor disorder - from around the North Island, including Napier, Whanganui, New Plymouth and Wellington.

Wellington District Court has struggled with him. In various appearances he has claimed the cannabis he smokes is for "peace", defended his nakedness as "moon bathing" and said the car he was found drink-driving in was a waka.

In 2006 he was deemed unfit to fulfil his community service work because he would not wear shoes, and had not done so for seven years.

At times he has so many charges pending that the court has had to set aside a whole hearing day just for his cases. In one appearance he was about to be led from the dock to the cells when an arm reached out from behind a door to spray air freshener around him, amusing the judge and everyone else in court.

Several years ago, when Cuba St was his preferred haunt and his torn blanket was starting to stink, local shopkeepers banded together to buy him a new one with a tiger on it.

Wellington Community Sergeant Matt Boyce says police field regular calls from members of the public, drivers and shopkeepers about Hana's behaviour, ranging from complaints of inappropriate dress and about the mess he leaves in doorways he has slept in, to allegations of drug-taking.

But many of the complaints are to do with nuisance, rather than criminal behaviour and, other than contacting support agencies, there is often little that police can do.

"Anyone living on the streets is vulnerable to the natural elements and people who can be taking advantage of such a person."

Hana's lawyer, Maxine Dixon, says he cannot be stopped from sitting in the gutter unless he commits a crime. In the past Hana has regularly been arrested, charged and appeared in court to be granted bail.

The Bail Act which guides judges is complex, she says, and so the process has to strike a balance between Hana's rights and public interest.

On sunny days, before he was sent to ward 27, Hana often sat on the footpath on the corners of Courtenay Place and Tory St, catching the afternoon sun, with his legs sprawled in the path of traffic.

Despite the potential risk for motorists, Mr Boyce says it is sometimes hard to move Hana on. "For his own safety we ask him to move off the road."

Hana has been sent for treatment under section 34 of the Mental Health Act. He will remain in care until a clinician is satisfied he is fit to be released.

The Dominion Post