Thesis student 'tarred' as Mrs Blanket Man

16:00, Dec 06 2013
Blanket Man
'BROTHER': Ben Hana, better known as Blanket Man.

She suffered run-ins with police and earned the nickname Mrs Blanket Man - now an academic is lifting the lid on her experience shadowing Wellington's best-known homeless man.

Ben Hana, commonly known as Blanket Man, is the subject of Victoria University sociologist Bronwyn McGovern's thesis, A life lived on the corner.

McGovern spent 400 hours with the man she calls Brother, who died last year aged 53 after nearly a decade on the streets.

During her field studies, which started or ended as early as 4am, she had routine run-ins with police and was often mistaken for Hana's girlfriend and referred to as Mrs Blanket Man or Blanket Woman.

"I wanted to get a sense of a whole life lived fully on the street, so that meant, for instance, sitting with Brother on Christmas Day, on the day of the Sevens tournament, on a wet Monday morning at 10am and at 7am when the commuters were going to work."

At times the study mirrored George Orwell's full immersion in homelessness as told in his 1933 book, Down and Out in Paris and London, she said.


"I got mistaken for a homeless person many times and that gave me a taste of what it's like to be tarred by association," she said.

Living on the street night and day meant Hana needed time away from the public gaze and used an array of techniques to attract or shut down contact.

"He could use self-deprecating humour to block people who tried to show they cared or who complimented him.

"This allowed him to create and maintain distance - by not taking himself seriously it was then difficult for others to do so."

This wit also allowed him to make the best of bad situations. One morning after a night in custody at Wellington Central Police Station, Hana said: "Ah Hilton Central, just another occupational hazard that comes with the territory."

Although he was put in psychiatric care towards the end of his life, McGovern thought he was eccentric but ultimately sane.

"Nonetheless he was institutionalised and as a consequence he was inevitably labelled with a psychiatric condition. My thesis demonstrates how these classifications become emblematic of how society ‘makes up people' and how in Brother's case the assigned classifications led to the ‘un-making' of a person."

McGovern graduates next week and is negotiating with publishers to turn the thesis into a book.

Fairfax Media