Homeless man dies on the Auckland cemetery bench he called home

Keith Johnson died on July 1 on the park bench where he used to sleep in Onehunga.
CATRIN OWEN/STUFF

Keith Johnson died on July 1 on the park bench where he used to sleep in Onehunga.

A well-known homeless man who had a cheeky smile and lovable nature died on a bench in an Auckland cemetery.

Keith Johnson, died aged 57 on the same bench he had sat on most days for the past four years in St Peter's cemetery in Onehunga on July 1.

Johnson was not in the best of health, and his alcoholism may have contributed to his death, those close to him say.

An outpouring of love and messages have been placed on his bench including table spread, flowers and tomato sauce.
CATRIN OWEN/STUFF

An outpouring of love and messages have been placed on his bench including table spread, flowers and tomato sauce.

The public has responded to Johnson's death with an outpouring of grief. Mementos including a surfboard, table spreads, flowers and notes have been left at the bench he used to occupy.

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Constable Don Allan would regularly walk the beat in the morning around the church and always looked out for Johnson.

"Keith was a loveable person and always had a cheeky smile," Allan said.

"He made friends easily and touched the hearts of those who had dealt with him."

Allan said many of the homeless in Onehunga chose to live on the streets, but he constantly checked on them and encouraged them to seek housing.

Johnson was also regularly monitored by other community members and was often taken into Auckland City Hospital due to is poor health.

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"Keith being Keith would often discharge himself from hospital and make his way back to Onehunga where he obviously felt a sense of family with some of the other homeless people in Onehunga," Allan said.

Petra Zaleski is the vicar at St Peter's Church and had become fond of Johnson, who would often sit in the corner of her office. 

She said the death of Johnson had been confronting and highlighted a wider problem of homelessness in Auckland.

"It says something about the invisible ones, the homeless are visible during the day but they are invisible at night." 

There are an estimated 41,000 Kiwis sleeping rough around the country.

Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly said homeless people had a life expectancy that was about 20 years lower than the average life expectancy.

"One person dying on our streets or as a result of homelessness is one too many," he said. 

Farrelly said there was not one cause to the deaths of people who were sleeping rough but they were a cumulative effect of ongoing health issues, poor nutrition and continued exposure to the elements.

"We've had some very wet, cold nights in the winter so far and it is heartbreaking to think of people sleeping outside in these conditions."

The mission works to mitigate those factors through services such as a drop-in centre, outreach and support services and low-cost health centre.

Farrelly said the Housing First coalition, which was launched last year by the mission and Lifewise in an aim to end homelessness, was a positive step towards addressing the wider problem.

"As a community we need to provide a range of solutions for people who are rough sleeping - emergency shelters, transitional housing and support into permanent housing.

"As a city we need to be committed to addressing the issue of homelessness and finding workable solutions, one part of which is saying it is not acceptable in our city," he said.

Allan said more needed to be done in the outskirts of the city such as Onehunga.

"There are shelters in the city, but there's nothing locally."

 - Stuff

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