This week I attended my second annual Local Government NZ Conference in the five years that I have been an elected representative.
This one was a Skycity Auckland, and a chance to observe the logistics of the Skycity operation really appealed to me. It was a brilliant opportunity to bring the latest in local Government ideas back to KCDC’s senior management team, but my most valuable lessons were learned on the street outside of Skycity.
Rotorua’s Cr Raj Kumar, hit the nail on the head when he rose from the 600 delegates to ask the third Urban design speaker of the morning, ‘What about the real problems?’ Are we going to talk about the real issues, outside of here, and in every city in NZ. Homelessness, meth drugs, families living in cars, and begging? While the “H” word had been dropped a few times, no one, not even the Prime Minister and the other four political party leaders really dwelt on the homeless long enough to expose their lack of a solution. Homelessness was on no one’s agenda.
So at midnight, after the formal awards dinner, while the other delegates were hitting the casino’s, I went out looking for some answers from Auckland’s real Aucklanders in my warmest coat, hat scarf and with pockets full of complimentary chocolates and a spare sleeping bag from home to give away.
On a corner street seat I found a teen island girl, who quickly asked for money, but was satisfied with chocolate as a substitute. She proceeded to wordlessly communicate with signals to a very bagged down older beggar woman on the pavement and two more teens on opposite street corners. The well rehearsed messages were, I am ok, this palangi is no threat, she has no cash, she’s ok, she’s from Skycity and it’s food. I watched as they signalled the beggar from their vantage points of on coming pedestrians, she would re arrange her posture and ask for a donation in her cup. Here is where it got interesting. Upon success, one or another of the teens would come over, take the money and make their way to a nearby food bar, returning quickly while chewing from a paper bag. Is she your Mum,? I asked. No, Just my friend and we look out for her. She stopped herself before admitting to a stranger, that the older woman looks after them too.
Soon after, on the same seat, now wet with rain, a very elderly Maori man (only two years older than me), chivalrously offered me half his cardboard to sit on to protect my coat. Out came the weary question, “Do you have a coin or two”? I answered No, sorry, and offered to share my chocolate. He did, and after the most polite thanks and introductions I’ve heard anywhere, my new acquaintance Karl quietly told me his story. How he has no home to go to. And will be sleeping rough, even though his sports bag only contained a sweatshirt and nothing to protect him from the elements. He had been on the streets 9 months, this was his first winter. Do you want a home, no, the gangs just come a take and break and throw you out, then no one will help you when your last house was wrecked.
His (family) siblings were back in Rarotonga, I asked if he would go there as it would be warmer and better for his health and his lungs, he said nah, I can’t leave this country now, record. Sleeve gets pushed up to show me his story drawn in dark green prison tats. I don’t pry, I don’t want to show him any less politeness than he has shown me. No drink and no drugs in sight, I asked him that, but he said they gave him diarrhoea, real bad, all the time, how about food, no not much, can’t cope. I sensed an undiagnosed medical condition, but didn’t voice that. He said he was tired and would have to find some cardboard to lie on. I asked if he would like a blanket, and his face lit up with the most beautiful smile as he thanked me over and over, when I produced the sleeping bag and told him it was his. I went looking for his cardboard and returned.
As we had talked we had observed a younger Maori man, dressed American gangster style deftly approaching motorists stopped on the lights, window washer style, but asking for cash. He bounced away from the rejections, he bounced away from the abuse and he bounced over to us. “Hey lady, whatcha doing out here with my mate? Are you ok Karl”? Karl said, yes, re assured him, and offered introductions, explaining there were 600 of us Council people over there in Skycity from all over the country. I asked if anyone else had come out to talk to them, but no one had. “You should have been here earlier if you want to learn something Jackie, Brad said, The cops came and took one of us, it was ugly man, they were too rough. The cops should always have a psych nurse with them, or some psych training, at least then, they could help someone.
A passer-by handed a smiling Brad a 4pack of beer and we moved under a dry shop veranda, bums on cold pavement and as the late night pedestrians passed by or stopped to hand over a tenner or listen a while. Brad, Karl and I debated the world. Brads description of home is a place full of spite. No place for his spiteful family for him anymore, just here and now. The three of us debated our ideal political party policies and fix its. Immigration, refugees on the streets. “What, Syrians”? I asked stupidly, nah Cantabrians, laughs, there’s heaps of them up here from Christchurch cause it’s warmer in Auckland. We debated the health system, as bad as Australia, where his sister had died of cancer. Failures in the mental health system, and Brads energy supplying adult ADHD became very apparent.
We laughed a lot……and we didn’t laugh, when Brad told us his 10 year old nephew in Australia had hung himself earlier in the week….or so he said. Yesterday he’d asked the Mormon minister up the road to help him skype into the funeral in Aussie, and he wouldn’t help… or so he said. Brad changed into someone else at that point, an angrier ex army trained soldider… or so he said, whose quick grief filled reactions had shut Australia’s doors to him forever after he’d punched the Australian, ex Prime Ministers nose……… or so he said, then managed to escape the scene of the crime on foot. They’ve got warrants out for me now, so my nephews, with no Mum, are on one side, where I can’t look after them anymore, and I’m stuck here in New Zealand, trapped… someone needs to care for his nephews… he needs to care for those poor kids… and I absolutely believe him.
It seemed, the lack of a physical home or housing shortage wasn’t as much a problem for these two rough sleeping gentlemen as the lack of a memory of a home with a heart and love and human caring in it. This is what drove them to the streets, this time, and frankly this is what keeps them on the streets, by choice throughout winter 2017. The bad memories and disappointments from way in the past and not so distant past, of home, bad memories of unrealised expectations that someone else, who was supposed to care, would care.
Karl, now wrapped up, on the wide concrete step of a roller door needed to sleep and suddenly it was time to say a hard goodbye and we shook hands warmly and for a long time. I was already chilled to the marrow of my aching bones, and as they wished me well with the “True New Zealand’ political party we three had just invented. I turned away quickly for the Motel, tears welling and spilling as the reality of their cold night and nights ahead rammed home.