Annemarie Quill: Solutions are in our hands

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LOOKING FOR HOPE: Many are doing it tough in the Bay like Steve and Charlotte, but it doesn't have to be like this.
LOOKING FOR HOPE: Many are doing it tough in the Bay like Steve and Charlotte, but it doesn't have to be like this.

I don't like people who turn up at the door unannounced. Who 'pop' in on a Saturday, because they are 'just passing'.

Particularly in the mornings.

It just seems rude to give no advance warning - you might be still in your pyjamas, or clad in rubber-gloves in the midst of cleaning.

The last thing you need is an unexpected guest to entertain.

Door-knock surprises irritate me so much that if anyone shows up without letting me know they are coming I refuse to answer and just ignore them even if they can see me through the window.

That is what I thought Charlotte* and Steve* would do when I knocked on their door at 7.30am last week.

I could see they were awake through the window having a coffee. I knocked and was fully expecting them to ignore me.

But they opened the door and welcomed me into their lives.

Photographer John Borren and I had turned up at Memorial Park at sunrise.

It was the week before we launched our Bay of Plenty Times #OurHiddenHomeless series. We had already met Priscilla Pukeroa and family, who had slept in their car at Memorial Park for six weeks while they searched for a rental.

We had met Roger Taylor, chief executive of the Western Bay Primary Health Organisation, and nurses Christine Lewis and Philippa Jones, who had told us they were aware of an increasing number of people including couples, women and families living in cars in city parks.

John and I hoped to talk to some of these people about their experiences.

It was a freezing cold morning but such bright sunshine. I spotted Charlotte and Steve having their coffee in their car facing the water. John said, "I don't think they are homeless, I think they are just regular people having a coffee."

They were regular people having a coffee. They are also homeless, living in their car since November. They didn't tell us to go away but were welcoming and gracious. We shared their story this week on Wednesday.

Steve doesn't mince his words. As I listened to their story he had me shifting from shock to fits of laughter. A woman in the next car came over to see what all the commotion was - she was Christine, whose story we shared on Monday.

Charlotte introduced us and told me that Christine lives in her car and works full-time. Christine was stylishly warm in a black puffer jacket, pants and sneakers, hair freshly washed and nails painted. I told her I was astounded she was living in her car and off to work. I told her she looked way smarter than me - as I had jumped out of bed and rushed out of the house so early with no makeup and jeans and hair unbrushed. Christine laughed and said, "These are not my work clothes, these are my pyjamas."

I was trying to get my head around how someone could live in a car and be so together to get up and get ready. How did she even have coffee.

"Milk and two sugars" was her wry reply.

It was an eye-opener how people living in cars found strategies of day-to-day living that we all take for granted. How they had to be resourceful about where to shower, how to get boiled water. Steve joked that you have to time your toileting needs around the times the park toilets open and closed. If you needed to go after 9pm there are 24-hour toilets at Sulphur Park, but if you were out of fuel, well you had a problem. The way he explained it had me cracking up laughing but it hammered home to me how a homeless person is stripped of basic human dignities of food, shelter, and basic hygiene.

The women I met in this situation all said how hard it was being a homeless woman in particular, not just from a safety perspective but having little privacy and trying to maintain hygiene and female dignity. We afford our criminals in prison good living conditions. Serial killers get to pee when they want to.

This week we met 3-month old baby Hamish*, battling deadly meningococcal meningitis in Tauranga Hospital.

His over-crowded living conditions were a factor in the development of his condition, said his doctor. Baby Hamish is one of eight people - including a 16-month toddler and three teenagers - living in a two-bedroom house in Gate Pa. Another three people, including two children aged 5 and 13, live in a caravan outside.

His grandmother Charmaigne* told us how all 11 people shared a bathroom and toilet - including children getting ready for school and adults going off to work.

Despite tough living conditions, the people we met in this series were warm and good-natured. They were generous with time and stories, and patient when we revisited them several times.

Once when we went back to see Steve and Charlotte they were asleep, resting in the day as it was so cold at night.

Another time Steve and Charlotte were waiting ages for water to boil on their little gas cooker to have their first coffee of the morning and Steve was concerned that I was getting cold. Charmaigne - who was sleeping every night at the hospital with her sick grandson was worried I looked tired.

People with empathy living in a society which has seemed to lost some of its own empathy. As Roger Taylor said, "What happened to the Kiwi psyche that we allow this? To what degree are we not showing an interest in the children of this bloody country? ... Where is the level of disgust that as a country we have allowed this to emerge?"

There is no silver bullet.

It seems clear a co-ordinated approach is needed. Phillipa Jones at the PHO says solutions need to be enabling - moving people from bad situations permanently rather than sticking plaster.

Roger Taylor said government policies should be realigned from the perspective of early intervention and caring for children and families.

He said New Zealand does not seem to value enough the crucial importance of raising children and families. Children and how they are cared for ought to be a lens through which all government policy is assessed. The Families' Commission and Children's Commissioner have being saying this for years.

Women and children living in cars, tents, caravans and garages, not being properly nourished, their health needs unmet, children's schooling affected or not even attending school, people not feeling secure and safe - there are dire consequences for them and for all our futures.

This is going to be a huge issue coming up to the local and general elections.

I also feel we need more women in city leadership positions. Women who will give a voice to women and families - strong female leaders like Ngati Ranginui Iwi chief executive Steph O'Sullivan. We need more to stand up.

It is good things are happening including discussions of a night shelter for women, a Tauranga hospital trust fund for vulnerable families in its care, and emergency housing for families thanks to two buildings on the Strand gifted rent-free for a year by the Tauranga Moana Maori Trust Board to Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust, which has 140 homeless people on its books.

Last week executive director Tommy Wilson launched stage one of this Whare 4 Whanau Project, called Whare Tauranga - A Place to Call Home at a powhiri which the Bay of Plenty Times attended. As Awanui Black led the karakia we walked through the house putting our hands on the walls, the windows, the doors to this place which bring broken families together. We all stood in what would be the living room and exchanged korero.

There was a sense of strength in community with lots of positivity despite the recognition of a crisis.

Again it was a super cold morning. Trust chairman Bruce Bryant invited me to come and stand next to him in the sun to get warm.

He said communities could solve any problem as long as they were empowered, saying he was convinced there were a lot of people out there who wanted to help but do not know how to step over the line to do it.

After the powhiri, people sat together sharing hot tea and kai. Tommy insisted I eat hot pies. Rangi did a haka. It felt like a family. It was a family. This is our community and we must never forget our humanity, our respect for others, our oha-ki-te-tangata.

You can choose to put your head in the air and ignore the people in cars. You can stay at home alone watching Netflix. Or you can get out and use whatever skills you have to make our community great.

Money is a great help but it doesn't have to be money. Tommy talks, Liz cooks, Jan teaches, Paul builds, Roger, Pete, Hugh, Phillipa, Christine and many more save lives. City leaders make decisions. The police protect. Architects, builders, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners, artists, musicians, hunters. We all have different skills. We need each other, Ma tini ma mano ka rapa te whai.

N t rourou, n taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi

By many, by thousands, the work will be accomplished

With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

This crisis is knocking on all our doors.

Steve and Charlotte wait for the sunrise every morning not just for warmth, but for hope. Because as Steve says, what do you do otherwise, build yourself a big hole. We cannot stand by and watch anyone fall in that hole.

Tauranga should be our beautiful home. A safe anchor for everyone.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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