Hobo plan for Riff Raff square

'Wouldn't that be a good reputation to have?'

MATT BOWEN
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2013
David Engwicht
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/Fairfax NZ

BOLD PLAN: Director of Creative Communities International, David Engwicht, left, has bold plans for the Riff Raff square and resident ‘‘streeties’’.

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Wellington had celebrity vagrants Blanket Man and Bucket Man, now Hamilton needs to capitalise on its rag tag collection of "streeties", and embrace them to create a more vibrant city.

That's the suggestion of a leading urban spaces expert, and it's getting the support of Hamilton City Council and city retailers, who once wanted the scruffy misfits banished.

The "streeties", as they like to be known, have long been a thorn in the side of retailers and restaurateurs in the south end of Victoria St near the Riff Raff statue, where they congregate.

Gripes included begging for money, eating scraps off used plates, drinking alcohol and verbal abuse.

But an Australian champion of "streeties" has appeared with a bold plan to include them in a Rocky Horror makeover of the square.

David Engwicht, director of Creative Communities International, has been working behind the scenes to convince retailers and council officials of his plan.

He believes the city is misguided trying to drive the streeties out of town.

Instead, he reckons the city should turn Riff Raff square into a place that's comfortable for them.

"If you have people acting mean to that group they'll act mean back, or at least get their back up.

"The logic is, let's treat them as mean as we possibly can until they leave town. They've got psychological ties to the place so simply treating them meanly is not going to get them to move on.

"And what would be wrong if Hamilton became known as the most friendly town to people who have fallen on hard times? At the end of the day wouldn't that be a good reputation to have?"

His vision reached a milestone on Thursday morning with councillors and Mayor Julie Hardaker hosting a barbecue in Riff Raff square with the streeties, to include them in the planning process.

The groups will meet again in August and set up a resources bank to raise money, skills and junk for the project.

A full design day will follow, open to everyone who cares to create something out of the available resources.

Action teams will branch off that and, all going to plan, it will culminate in a "bold social experiment" consisting of a three-day makeover for the square before Christmas.

There are about 20 regulars in the area but estimates suggest Hamilton has about 30 regular rough sleepers and at least 400 without secure permanent housing.

It's too early to say whether any of them will reach the heights of notoriety that Blanket Man reached over the years he spent roaming the streets of Wellington in his thong. Or the similarly named Bucket Man, who called those same streets home.

He rarely met anyone's eye as he tramped through the city with a telltale growth on his head, a bucket of possessions and a bedroll.

Former streeties critic and camera store owner Graham Boswell, has done a u-turn over the hobos, and now fully backs Mr Engwicht's idea to turn the square into a tourist drawcard.

While Ms Hardaker said any redesign would be one of a number of measures and there was a long way to go yet.

"There's certainly high commitment from businesses around that area with redeveloping Riff Raff and we support that."

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But Hamilton City Oaks general manager Steven Penrose believes it'll attract more people to the area and there's enough trouble as it is.

"He'd get two or three of them involved but he won't get most of them," he said.

"They need a trespass bylaw. If they don't do that it's not good."

Mr Penrose said the situation has deteriorated since February.

"They were standing out on the road the other day stopping cars asking for money. If they don't do something with the park to stop them going there then it will be worse."

The man behind the Riff Raff statue, Mark Servian, said he's been wanting the council to redevelop the space since the statue went up in 2004.

"I think it's a good strategy," he said.

"If we can get it done in time for the 10th anniversary it'd be great.

"The other thing I'd like them to keep in mind is that the whole world is watching the statue through the Riff Raff cam. "

But he said there should be no excuse for intimidation or violence in the square and there needs to be a balance struck with the right mix of security to deal with any situations that may arise.

Michael Mason, 35, is one of the streeties involved and said Mr Engwicht had some good ideas. He'd also like to see a CCTV camera installed for security reasons.

- Waikato Times

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