The secret life of homeless Nelson man Ron Brinsdon

Ron Brinsdon, pictured in 2005, on his dawn can collection run in Hardy St. He was remembered as an intelligent and ...
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Ron Brinsdon, pictured in 2005, on his dawn can collection run in Hardy St. He was remembered as an intelligent and caring man at his funeral on Monday.

To those hurrying past, he was the tall, gaunt old guy sometimes rummaging through central Nelson rubbish bins, sometimes sitting in shop doorways, or on outdoor seats.

To those that knew him on the street he was Ron, a gentleman, a collector of cans and other "bargains", an avid follower of rugby and cricket commentaries on his trusty transistor radio, a library regular, a man of few but carefully chosen words.

Even fewer knew his surname, anything about his background, or how he came to live on Nelson's streets for the past 17 or so years.

As a fiercely private person – where he slept was only one of his well-guarded secrets – he would have hated the idea of this story.

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But those who have shared their memories of him have done so out of respect, friendship and to correct some misconceptions.

Ron Brinsdon collapsed in the Buxton Square carpark, one of his regular daytime haunts, about 8am on September 11. 

Staff from surrounding businesses managed to resuscitate him, but he died five days later after being transferred to Wellington Hospital. He was 75.

His friend, inner-city worker Vicky Pomeroy, was one of the last to see him on the morning of his collapse.

He told her when she inquired that he wasn't feeling well, but typically did not ask for help. 

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It echoed the first time she met Ron in Trafalgar St, about 15 years ago.

"It was Christmas time and I offered him $10 as a present. Ron thanked me but said he didn't need my money."

After that ,she would say hi when she saw him and they slowly became friends, lately sharing an early morning routine of coffee, scones and a chat.

Ron did an early morning round of the central streets, starting as early as 5.30am in summer, collecting what he called "bargains" – things others left behind.

If he was particularly lucky he would find some of his favourite tipple, bourbon, or cigarettes.

Freedom campers using Buxton Square provided a fertile hunting ground, leaving behind items such as clothing, chairs, a tent, a camping oven, and a fishing rod.

He would share his finds, sometimes with Pomeroy or with others on the street. Anything of value would be given to the police, and Ron would also slip lost eftpos and credit cards under the doors of the appropriate banks, she said.

She said among his other unseen acts were picking up rubbish and putting one-hour free parking tickets on cars left in the Buxton carpark after their owners had a big night on the town. 

"He was a positivist. He was a glass half-full person. I never, ever heard him put anyone down," Pomeroy said.

"He had those old-fashioned values of politeness and respect."

Ron was not on any benefit, preferring to stay outside the system,  but would get food and coffee in return for delivering pamphlets for inner-city businesses.

David Allpress, a businessman who does voluntary administration work for the Anglican Church, first met Ron through his friend Dan, a former public trustee, who also collected cans from rubbish bins.

The pair had their own routes; Ron in the inner-city, Dan on the outskirts and towards Tahunanui. To a casual observer they were both living rough and were scavenging. That misconception led to both being assaulted by those who somehow felt offended by the practice.

In reality Dan lived in an inner-city house. In his garage he had a machine that flattened the cans collected, before selling them to a recycler  – 540 cans made a kilogram that earned only $1.20. 

The pair then sent the money to Habitat for Humanity, the organisation that helps families with housing needs.

Allpress said the pair had a strong empathy for the disadvantaged, and received official recognition for their work.

He saw Ron on the streets and in the Elma Turner Library, where part of his daily routine was reading newspapers to catch up on current events and the sharemarket. Library staff considered him one of the family, Allpress said.

"I can picture him in his seat near the newspapers. He would say 'page so and so [of the National Business Review] David, you need to read those'. His insights were more reliable than the sharebrokers."

Little is known about Ron's earlier life, other than he was a bushman from Oamaru where it's believed he still has family. After numerous inquiries, a family member has been contacted.

A few do know why he ended up homeless, but out of respect for his privacy they won't say.

What they will share is that the city has lost one of its characters. Ron had his own demons, but it did not stop him doing his bit for others.

"He has been one of the joys for me coming into the central city," Allpress said. "Nelson will not be the same for me again."

Ron's funeral will be held on Monday at 1pm at the All Saints Church in Vanguard St.

 - Stuff

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