The past couple of years have seen countless confronting headlines about New Zealand’s “homeless crisis”. Grim statistics include thousands of Aucklanders without permanent accommodation—many of them children—with eight out of 10 turned away from emergency community shelter because the “system is bursting at the seams”.
Stats NZ defines homelessness as those living without proper shelter, such as sleeping on the streets or in a car; those living in temporary or emergency accommodation; or those living in uninhabitable housing such as dilapidated dwellings or garages. According to Auckland City Council, a “key driver” of homelessness is “a lack of social and affordable housing”, with the most at-risk groups including those suffering from mental health issues, addiction, or family violence, and is “increasingly affecting groups who have not traditionally been at risk”.
Analysis of census data by the University of Otago concluded homelessness in Aotearoa’s biggest city increased by more than a third between 2006-2013, with more than half of all homeless adults “working, studying or both”. Even more worryingly, figures are likely to have been understated due to factors such as the unknown numbers living in uninhabitable dwellings and a “reluctance by households to reveal their true circumstances”.
Verve caught up with a couple of awesome organisations doing their bit to help some of our most vulnerable citizens.
“I’ve always been proud to be a Kiwi and around the world we are known for our generosity and kindness,” says Eddie Uini, a former social worker and now New Zealand service manager of Orange Sky. “Still, I think we have a lot to learn about what life is like for those who are sleeping rough and ways we might be able to help.”
Orange Sky is a non-profit organisation that provides free mobile laundry and shower services for those experiencing homelessness by way of trailers towed by bright orange vans, equipped with washing machines, driers and showers, powered by generators. But the service, aided by dozens of volunteers, is about so much more than enabling folk to wash their gear and their hair.
“I’ve always seen our van as offering three services, the third being connection and conversation,” Eddie says. “We often underestimate how much a simple conversation can mean to someone. Loneliness is a massive issue our friends on the street must face, and if even just for a couple hours a day we can provide a safe place for people to come and connect with our volunteers, well, I’ve seen first hand how much that can lift a person up.”
There are more than 70 volunteers in Auckland, and Eddie admits to being pleasantly surprised at the variety of their backgrounds, ranging from students to retirees of many ethnicities “who all come together with one goal of helping to provide our friends on the streets with free washing, showers and conversation”.
“Whether it’s been people wanting to volunteer, other service providers that we partner with, or business looking to help sponsor our van-operation costs, we’ve had so much support from the start,” beams Eddie, “as well as the message of support and donations from the general public.”
On a note of personal growth, Eddie says that the opportunity to be out on the road every day and making those connections has helped him realise that even his own “perceptions surrounding homelessness may have been a little off”. Which is why those conversations are so important.
“In short, I think we are on the right track to creating an environment where everyone can have access to a roof over their heads,” he says. “But it’s definitely going to be a long journey.”
“I think people have a much greater understanding that homelessness affects women, children, young people, whole families and single men,” says Moira Lawler, chief executive of Lifewise. “There is no ‘typical’ homeless person. People are also starting to understand that homelessness is not a choice but rather an absence of choices: the last resort.”
Lifewise is an Auckland-based community organisation that develops ways to solve social issues, and support those with nowhere to live. With 150-year-old roots in the Methodist Church of New Zealand, it organises fundraising events such as the Big Sleepout whereby participants spend a night sleeping on a piece of cardboard (in a safe place) in order to receive “an insight into what it means to sleep rough”.
“It’s an event where people who have been homeless get to tell their story and explain to people who don’t confront homelessness often what has to happen to end this inequity,” says Moira. “It’s a chance for corporates and business people to connect with staff, volunteers and people who have lived experience around an issue we all feel passionate about.”
Another of their notable projects is Merge Cafe on K’ Road, “a safe, warm, space for people who are having a rough time, people who need some company and people who want great affordable food to come together and share space”.
More than half of the cafe’s customers are experiencing personal issues. Customers who pay full price for their meals help support the free dishes given to those who can’t afford them.
“Merge offers a way for our communities to connect and make amazing things happen,” says Moira. “It’s our alternative to the soup kitchen. A respectful place where people can both receive help and contribute to others. It’s about reciprocity. Many of our regulars are pensioners, local workers, construction workers, or students.”
The cafe has come to represent Lifewise’s work with homelessness and the support received from Aucklanders.
“Lifewise was also an early champion of Housing First,” adds Moira. “Through this programme in the last two years we have housed over 100 people who have been homeless for much of their adult lives. Their average time on the street is 14 years.”
Among the organisation’s finest achievements is “proving beyond doubt that anyone and everyone can be housed and can live well in the community”.
“As a society, I think we are starting to understand how small our world is,” says Moira. “Climate change is a great leveller. People who have lived on the margins, with disadvantage for long periods have so much to teach the rest of us about how to build relationships, how to rely on your mates and how to support people around you to get through. More than ever we need to build community and people who have been homeless have these skills in spades. We need everyone’s voice to create a fairer environment.”