Death elevates residents' fears

GEORGINA STYLIANOU
Last updated 05:00 27/07/2013
Macgibbon Place housing unit
SUN SPOT: A resident sleeps in the doorway of a Macgibbon Place housing unit.
Tai Thompson
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
RESIDENTS IGNORED: Tai Thompson says the Christchurch City Council does ‘‘nothing’’ when they are alerted to problems at Macgibbon Pl.

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Lock the doors, draw the curtains, don't talk to your neighbours - that's how some of Christchurch's most vulnerable residents live.


Two women sit outside in the afternoon sun while a frail-looking man slowly hangs out his washing. It's hard to imagine police forensic units and detectives swarming this sleepy complex after the discovery of Valmai McFie's lifeless body less than a week ago.

Many residents said they had been rocked by the death.

Some allege the Christchurch City Council's social housing unit ignored complaints McFie made about a neighbour, Colin Hoani.

Hoani, 59, is accused of McFie's murder.

The council or police won't say whether he was ever the subject of complaints.

"This used to be a place for elderly people and it was great . . . but now we have drug addicts, alcoholics and people with mental handicaps," says 66-year-old Alex (not his real name).

He has lived at MacGibbon Pl for 10 years and says the last three have been "diabolical".

One resident continued living at the complex for years after the council evicted him, while others left units in a "disgusting mess".

He claims one woman, who has since died from a suspected overdose, was operating a brothel from her home and "boozed-up idiots" still sometimes bang on his door at night.

Asked if he feels safe in his home, Alex points to a wooden baton hanging on the living room mantelpiece and says: "Do you think I'd have that if I felt safe?"

Complaints about some tenants' behaviour fall on deaf ears, he says, because the council just tells worried residents to call the police.

"The police are here all the bloody time and sometimes there's six or seven cars. But they have a chat, tell people to pull their heads in but it'll be the same the next night or the night after that."

Police moved into the Colombo St, Sydenham, station "just to be nearer to this place", he jokes.

Another man shuffles across the grass to Alex's doorway and timidly asks whether he knows when McFie's funeral will be held.

Alex says her death "shocked us" and left residents wondering what will be done to clean up the city's social housing system.

"People are feeling very down about it. It's been a strange week that's for sure."

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A young Ethiopian woman has left MacGibbon Pl after McFie's death because "she was just too scared", Alex says.

"It's not right for people to be scared in their homes. The elderly people who are here get on with their lives and don't want any trouble but these young people who apparently have mental illnesses are just thugs looking for trouble.

"And I don't think a drug or alcohol addiction is an illness. It's how they have chosen to live."

Alex has photos on his computer of a neighbouring unit after its tenant was evicted. Graffiti, squalor and "no respect" are a way of life for some people, he says.

The council should carry out thorough background and personality checks before offering housing to "people who don't deserve it", he says.

"I just want it to go back to the way it was. Different sort of people should be separated because if they're not then stuff like this happens.

"There are people out there who are homeless or vulnerable and would feel privileged to have a roof over their head, but some of the people we've got here just don't give a damn."

Tai Thompson, 76, who lived opposite McFie, says she was often "upset about arguing with Colin".

"I always told her that if she had any trouble then she should come to me straight away."

Thompson has "hardly seen anyone outside since [the homicide] happened".

"What you have to do here is not get involved with anyone because when something bad does happen and people ring the council, they do nothing."

Across the cul-de-sac another resident does not wish to speak to The Press because he thinks the council might "kick me out".

Keith Dobbs, 75, cautiously unlocks his front door and glances around at his neighbours' units before he lets us in. "If I could go back . . . if I had a choice then there would be no way I would live here," he says.

"When I looked at a unit it seemed fine. It was quiet and it looked nice but you don't understand the ins and outs until you live here day-in and day-out."

In the year and a half Dobbs has lived in MacGibbon Pl his motto has been "keep yourself to yourself".

"I just keep my head down. I would never borrow anything or lend something to a neighbour because that's how arguments start."

Prescribed medication and alcohol don't mix well, he says, "especially in this place".

Dobbs also thinks the council should have separate complexes for elderly people.

"It would be better for everyone I think."

People peek out from behind their net curtains when a car pulls into the complex. As a petite woman with shopping bags gets out of the car, the curtains are drawn once more.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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