Good samaritans are not always welcome

19:45, Nov 04 2012
Bridge St, Nelson
PUBLIC CONCERN: A homeless woman, known as Ribena, with food from the rubbish bin on Bridge St.

Forget all my previous carping about the danger of cars; I nearly hit someone while I was on my bike the other day. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was riding down Vanguard St when someone stepped out into the road, completely oblivious, right in front of me.

I managed to stop in time, and thought about yelling something at them, or at least vigorously ringing my little bell in protest. Then I realised that the figure was wearing dirty pink and grey, and it was Ribena.

The homeless woman has been in the news recently after she turned up in central Nelson this year, and appeared to be living on the streets. People started to notice, and then get concerned.

Eventually one woman, Lara Goodall, posted on the Mail's Facebook page asking who in Nelson had seen the young girl sifting through city rubbish bins for food, sleeping on the street, and "yelling profanity, crossing the street in front of cars, walking into poles and travelling the streets with her pants around her ankles not realising"?

It turned out that plenty had. The post attracted 84 comments, some from a number of people who had spoken to Ribena and tried to give her help, offers which were refused. We ran a story, and people began to argue on Facebook and, offering snippets of her life history, speculating about her family history and mental health, and saying something should be done. Others objected that all the attention was a gross invasion of her privacy.

It's good that we have this urge to help. Maybe our community isn't as fractured and distant as we're led to believe these days. But the answer from the agencies was that they will help Ribena when - or if - she wants it.


Ribena is not the only one. Many of us will know the pain of being close to someone in a situation maybe not quite as visible as Ribena's, but certainly as all-encompassing - alcoholism, drug dependency, depression, or a violent relationship. Such things strike down more of those around us than we realise.

In fact, many of us are only a job loss, a divorce or an illness away from experiencing a similar trauma. The difference between individual situations might only be luck and family support.

Usually, despite the efforts and love of those around them, the only way forward is for the person to do something about it themselves.

But what can you do if they don't want to be helped, or are in such a poor mental state that they refuse treatment? Sometimes you stand by and can only watch - and pick up afterwards.

"Why is there only a men's shelter?" Lara asked in that initial Facebook post. Well, that's a very good question. There's also none for young people.

Figures from the Nelson- Tasman Housing Trust show that women and children make up most of the area's homeless population. In fact, the Mail first met Ribena in March at the men's night shelter.

"She's a lost soul," manager Edward Andrews said at the time, adding that there were normally several requests a year from women with nowhere else to go. Agencies report a desperate need for a women-and-children-only shelter; the men's is "no place for children", Mr Andrews said.

Whether a women's shelter would help Ribena remains an item of conjecture for the rest of us. We used to put people with mental health or drug problems in institutions and force treatment on them, locking them up against their will for the good of themselves, their family and their community. We've moved on from that. But we seem to think being homeless is a choice.

And so we come full circle. So far, Ribena doesn't appear to want to be "helped". Some argue that how someone chooses to live their life is none of our business. Others say that if she was well, she couldn't possibly want to live the way she is.

The awful thing is that her safety is certainly at risk, and not just from people on bikes. Something terrible might happen to this woman. If it does, we will collectively throw up our hands and say that somebody should have done something.

The usual answer to statements such as those is: "That somebody should be you." But if those offers are refused, as they seem to have been in Ribena's case, we end up stumped when it comes to deciding whether to intervene - and how.