BLUE MITSUBISHI STATION WAGON

MEMORIAL PARK

TAURANGA

AREA CODE 3112

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This was 4-year-old Chardonnay Daniels' Tauranga home address for six weeks.

She shared this 5sq m space with mum Priscilla Pukeroa and dad Anthony Daniels.

When it was time to go to sleep, Chardonnay hopped in the back in her Barbie sleeping bag. Anthony and me, we reclined our seats. It was like going to sleep on a La-Z-Boy. But your feet are stuck on the floor.

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Chardonnay slept in the boot. Dad slept in the driver's seat. Mum next to him.

Priscilla Pukeroa, 25, her partner Anthony Daniels, 52, and their daughter Chardonnay spent six weeks sleeping in their car in Tauranga parks as they hunted for a rental.

"When it was time to go to sleep, Chardonnay hopped in the back in her Barbie sleeping bag. Anthony and me, we reclined our seats. It was like going to sleep on a La-Z-Boy. But your feet are stuck on the floor," Pukeroa says.

Chardonnay wants some purple nail polish. She loves picture books. She carries around a plastic bag of them from Tauranga Library. She fishes them out and spreads them over her sleeping bag.

Barbie Princess is her friend. She adores her "mumma". She's a good kid, says her mum. "She is not a complainer", she says, "she's always been a happy kid".

Read more: Bay trust donates homes for homeless families

Chardonnay likes playing outside. When it is time to get off the swings, she doesn't hear her mum call out. "She would stay in the park running and sliding all day if she could ... she'd sleep there." But she didn't want to sleep there for 42 nights.

She loves going places in the car with mum and dad. But she didn't want to stay in the car for six weeks.

"We call ourselves the upper-class homeless because we have got a roof over our heads, even if it is a metal one. As opposed to sleeping on a concrete slab under the stars. No disrespect to the streeties who do it really rough ... I say it because when you're in a really bad situation, you have to keep your spirits up. It helps to have a laugh."

But it is no laughing matter. When community group Tauranga Under The Stars, which feeds the homeless each Saturday night, learned there was a 4-year-old among the homeless in Tauranga, it shared the family's plight on social media with a photo of Chardonnay in her Barbie sleeping bag.

They referred to her as "the Barbie Princess".

The sight of a little girl in a bright pink sleeping bag, face obscured with her wee slippered feet sticking out, sleeping in a car on one of the coldest nights of the year, was seen by Pete Chandler, who also happens to be the chief operating officer of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board.

We call ourselves the upper-class homeless because we have got a roof over our heads, even if it is a metal one. As opposed to sleeping on a concrete slab under the stars.

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In bed with his wife that Saturday night, June 4, they were both on Facebook when Chandler saw the post.

He jumped out of bed, called Tauranga Under the Stars to get in touch with the family while his wife put on the heaters and prepared beds in the spare room. In the end, the family was not able to be contacted that night. Chandler says he would not have hesitated to take them in his own four-bedroom rural Whakamarama property.

The next day, as the temperature was set to plummet again, Chandler sent the photo to every health board staff member. Someone contacted the Bay of Plenty Times. Thanks to financial donations from the community, almost two weeks ago the family was able to move into a nearby motel for six nights.

"When people found out we had been sleeping in the car they acted shocked. Some were overwhelmed. People turned up with clothes. We could put on layers of winter warmers," says Pukeroa.

Although grateful to those who emptied their drawers to give her clothes, Pukeroa doesn't want pity. She doesn't need more winter warmers. All her sock needs are met. She just wants a home.

"I don't even care what, where, as long as it has a roof. I don't want a mansion. I don't want a million-dollar home. Just a two-bed house or even a unit. I don't even care what suburb it, as long as it is by a school." Chardonnay turns 5 in September. Last Saturday was the deadline when the family would have to be turfed back on the streets looking for a rental from a laptop balanced on the steering wheel.

But Pukeroa brokered an agreement with the motel owner and Work and Income to be able to stay on a week-by-week basis. It is a temporary respite. The hunt for a permanent Tauranga home continues.

Speaking from the motel unit, Pukeroa wants to share her story because she says there are others like her and she wants them to know they are not alone.

"People might walk their dogs in the park and either not notice us, or put their heads in the air and look away. You might sit in your million-dollar mansion saying, 'that is not my problem'. What I'd say about being homeless is don't judge us until you meet us and find out why. Put yourselves in our shoes, walk in them, then tell me your opinion. This can happen to anyone." The family, she says, can pay up to $350 a week in rent. She has a bond sorted from Work and Income.

Read more: Scammers target elderly in Tauranga

Every day for six weeks she hunted online, on Trade Me, on Facebook groups. She has applied for about six houses a day. Thirty houses a week - or 180 in those six weeks.

She has been called back to one or two viewings. Neither chose her.

Priscilla Pukeroa lived in a car with her partner and four-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo/John Borren
Priscilla Pukeroa lived in a car with her partner and four-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo/John Borren

"One didn't want kids ... and the other one never called back. I texted and texted till eventually the agent said: 'No point texting as if you had got the house, we'd have told you'.

"It is a struggle to find houses in that price range in the first place. When you do, there is so much competition. They don't even bother to call you back. The landlords are picky ... they want fulltime workers and we're on a benefit. We are living in a car ... they look at us and probably think, no way. But you know what, I don't want to be on a benefit. I'm a hard worker. But a person can't take a job while living in a car. While we're living in the car, we can't get a house."

Pukeroa recognises on paper she might not be viewed as a perfect tenant but says she is honest and genuine.

"So I have a bad credit on my record but that was back in 2008. Since then I have been a good tenant. We both have good references. We are clean, we are reliable ... we don't do drugs. I like a drink every now and then but we are not drunks."

Place to escape

The family came to Tauranga for a better life and to escape what she describes as a "negative environment".

Pukeroa admits she was "naive" about the Tauranga housing market when the family decided to move here from Whangarei before Chardonnay started school in September.

"We came to Tauranga for opportunities. I'd heard there were good jobs and schools. We didn't know how crazy it was to get a house."

They referred to her as
They referred to her as "the Barbie Princess". Photo/John Borren

They came looking for a change of lifestyle. "In Whangarei we weren't going anywhere. I had a job in Burger King in Whangarei, but that life up there... it was a negative environment. It wasn't what I wanted for my daughter. I don't want her to make some of the mistakes I had as a girl." Pukeroa hails from a small town up North. She left school at 14 with no qualifications. "I went down a wrong route, pretending to be someone I wasn't. Drinking, partying, hanging out with the wrong crowd."

She was caught shoplifting six years ago."Once I stole alcohol ... and once I stole perfume from Farmers. I am not proud of it. It means I have a criminal record. It is not who I am now."

We didn't know Tauranga ... I had been there as a little girl and remembered it as lovely beaches. People were saying Tauranga is happening. I wanted that for my daughter.

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She fell pregnant at 21.

"It wasn' t planned. I wasn't ready to have a child."

She and her partner did not live together but brought up Chardonnay together.

Pukeroa "grew up", started working hard. Knowing that Chardonnay was soon to turn 5 and wanting that "better life" for her, they decided to make a go of it as a couple.

"We didn't know Tauranga ... I had been there as a little girl and remembered it as lovely beaches. People were saying Tauranga is happening. I wanted that for my daughter."

It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday when the family arrived. Pukeroa Google-mapped the nearest park, Memorial Park.

"I thought it was a lovely park. Winter hadn't kicked in. I said, 'Hey if we have to stay in the car a few nights while we find a place, that's okay'.

"Chardonnay thought it was an adventure ... and I thought soon we would be in our new home in Tauranga."

After days of looking for suitable rentals and getting nowhere, Pukeroa started feeling uneasy. It dawned on her that she kept seeing the same cars parked nearby. It hit her these were other families living in cars, also looking for houses.

"There are three other people I knew of sleeping in cars."

For the first week, Pukeroa says they "mixed it up" where they would park the car up to sleep.

They would use the public toilets to wash. The hygiene part was hard.

"Being a woman, I like to be clean, have my privacy, for me and for Chardonnay."

They used showers at a place in the city. "I totally walked in off the street and asked to use the shower. They let us for $2 a time."

Feeding the family without a kitchen was a challenge. "Our money was going to zilch. We couldn't buy groceries and cook so lived off fast food. We'd go to Bobby's for fish and chips. Someone told us it was the best fish and chip shop in Tauranga. I laughed. Fancy that, eh: homeless people who live in cars, we can go to the best fish and chip shop."

As the weeks went by it became tougher. The days grew colder and shorter.

Priscilla Pukeroa lived in a car with her partner and four-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo/John Borren
Priscilla Pukeroa lived in a car with her partner and four-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo/John Borren

Living in a confined space and applying for houses that never eventuated took its toll. She and her partner, Anthony Daniels, argued. Chardonnay was frustrated. There were times when they were hungry and did not have money for food.

"In a way it was easiest for Chardonnay as she didn't understand the reality. She's never been a complaining kid. But yep, there were times when it was just so hard ... there was no space for her to just go and rest."

There were fun times too. Pukeroa tried to remain positive. She would find free Wi-Fi to search online for houses. She would pass the time on Facebook. Daniels would watch movies on the laptop. Chardonnay played in the park.

Read more: Numbers of homeless in Tauranga unacceptable, says health boss

Pukeroa was grateful to meet others in the same situation at events at Greerton on Friday night and Tauranga Under the Stars on Saturday, where people gathered together to eat hot mince. Stories, soup and laughter.

"It meant a lot that people took time out of their busy lives, and fed the needy people. There wasn't any judging about who was homeless or the whys. Whoever was hungry could eat."

A bitter winter started to bite.

"I never thought we would still be in the car in June. That weekend [Queen's Birthday], when it got really cold, that was hard."

New living space

Now in her room in a central Tauranga motel, Pukeroa has "breathing space".

The room contains double and single beds and a chair. The Barbie sleeping bag covers Chardonnay's bed. There are basic kitchen facilities. On the wall is a lone painting of brightly coloured empty deck chairs looking out to the ocean. Humble, but to Pukeroa, it's "five star".

Sleeping in beds for the first time after six weeks in the car was bliss. They slept until after lunch. Daniels celebrated his birthday.

Pukeroa cooked steaming hot plates of pork chops, mash and veges.

The obvious question is, why not to go back to Whangarei?

Pukeroa looks at Chardonnay as though thinking hard. Chardonnay is tipping her books on the bed and chatting to herself. She seems happy.

To all those in this situation, keep trying, keep positive. You are not alone. Every individual, couple, family struggles in their own way.

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"I don't want to go backwards. That life is not the life I want for my girl. I want to find a home in Tauranga, work here, live here and my daughter go to school here."

Pukeroa says if someone offered her a job she would take it. Her dream job would be a caregiver to children or the elderly.

"Bringing up my daughter made me realise something I am good at. Looking after people and caring. If I had to retrain to do that I would ... if I had to go and work in a Burger King here I would. I am a hard worker."

Pukeroa would be the breadwinner for the family because Daniels has health issues.

He had rheumatic fever when he was baby. He had a double heart valve replacement in 2014.

"He is on medication for the rest of his life. It restricts him."

The blue Mitsubishi is parked in the garage below. "Sometimes I feel I never want to see that car again," she says.

Today, Pukeroa is grateful the family doesn't have to return to the car. "To all those in this situation, keep trying, keep positive. You are not alone. Every individual, couple, family struggles in their own way."

The hunt for a home continues.

She is desperate to find somewhere before September 22 when Chardonnay is due to start school.

"What I am most fearful about is getting sorted for her.

"That is why we are here. CYF (Child, Youth and Family) has already made contact with me as they had got a call from someone who said a young girl was sleeping in a car. I explained the situation and that is okay for now, but we really need to find somewhere."

She hopes they will find that somewhere.

Read more: Another entity quits state homes sell-off

"I get that we are not fulltime workers. But when I get a home, I will work. ... Look, I have made some mistakes in life that I am not proud of but that was years and years ago ... we are reliable tenants.

"I want a better life for my daughter. The best life I can give her. All I am asking is for someone to give us a chance."

Ministry of Social Development Social Housing Deputy Chief Executive Carl Crafar said staff had been working very closely with Ms Pukeroa and her family and are confident an offer of housing will be made in the near future.

"They've been in regular contact to advise us of changes in their circumstances, and due to health concerns raised with us we were able to apply a rheumatic fever fast-track to their application on 1 June."

"On June 8 we granted an advance of $450 to help with the cost of motel accommodation."