Helping themselves

By Simon Collins

Mamarangi Tekii has lived all of her 17 years in Richardson Place, Northcote, in the largest concentration of state houses on Auckland's otherwise affluent North Shore. She has seen her neighbourhood transformed in her lifetime.

"When we were little, we used to be brought up with gangs," she says.

Around the corner, Tonar St and Cadness St were known as places to buy drugs, say long-time residents Wallace and Diana Ngapo.

"It was like a drive-by," they say. "There were people on the street - youth were encouraged to be part of it. Customers would drive up and they would just pass the drugs into the cars."

Today, the blatant drug-dealing has stopped, and Mamarangi is helping at an after-school programme called "Champs" for children aged six to 12.

"Now the gangs aren't around here in Northcote, it's just a few of them," she says.

"Everyone in Northcote is one big family - everyone knows each other in this area, everyone is saying "Hi' to you when you walk past. It's safe around here."

Well actually, Northcote central is not yet paradise. Seventy-year-old Nick Klaassen has had seven windows in his Tonar St flat broken in the past three years, the last time by a young man on crutches who smashed his crutch through the windows of three flats in the middle of the night three months ago because he wasn't happy with a cigarette he was given.

A few weeks later youths threatened Klaassen with a block of wood when he refused to give them noodles from the foodbank he runs for St Vincent de Paul near his flat.

"I had to give them some noodles," he says.

Community constable Mark Wakefield concedes that the area has "got a long way to go".

Nevertheless, enough has changed to make this little pocket of 317 state houses worth our attention. It has managed to pull together a concerted effort by the community itself, local and central government and business, which may offer lessons for the rest of us.

The change has been achieved in a rapidly changing population. In 15 years, Pakeha have dropped from 61 per cent of the residents to 33 per cent, and Maori from 22 to 11 per cent. In their place now are Pacific people (33 per cent), Asians (28 per cent) and others (6 per cent).

Two-thirds of the 120 children at the local Onepoto Primary School speak English as a second language.

The Northcote shopping centre has reinvented itself as a "little Asia", attracting Asian shops and supermarkets. Centre co-ordinator Dean Wilson says that, with 12 empty shops when he arrived in 1996, the options were either to change or to die.

When Allan Hoskins came on as Onepoto's principal in 1993, half the students came from sole-parent homes and hardly any were working.

Peter Wolf, a youth worker in the area since 1991, says many school-leavers joined their parents or uncles in the drug trade.

"They would have kids doing it. It was good money for them - why would they go to school?" he says.

He recalls a council-organised clean-up which took away a skip-load of rubbish. Leaks, though, were left unattended.

"So where was the Housing NZ person who comes in and checks the houses?" he asks. "You go down there - it was like Beirut."

But Wolf has been one of a large cast of players who have helped to change things. From a start as a volunteer, he has developed a Christian-based agency called Te Roopu o Wai Ora, now funded by local and central government and charities to work with 45 young men.

"We go and meet them and do some mentoring with them once a week - take him out, find out what's happening in his life, give him a bit of encouragement and tell him some of the things his parents tell him, but in a different way," Wolf says.

"We just seem to have their respect a bit more because we are not there as an authority."

Wolf and his colleague Phil Squires share an office with Harbour Ward community co-ordinator Jill Nerheny, who has run a graffiti removal truck since 1989 aiming to remove all tagging within 24 hours.

In 2002 Nerheny started a "multi-agency strategic team" (MAST), bringing all agencies together to reduce youth crime. Wolf describes how then-MP Ann Hartley used that forum to challenge the police and Housing NZ to tackle the drug dealers.

North Shore's police commander at the time, Mike Hill, responded with New York-style "zero tolerance". Suddenly, patrols began pouring into Tonar St and Cadness St.

"When the police started to take a no-tolerance level, it did make a difference," Wolf says.

Before the crackdown, he says, local residents didn't call the police because they didn't expect any response. They would complain, but then would say, "I'm not a nark."

"Somewhere along the line you have to stand up to the bully, but they [residents] have to be supported," Wolf says.

Around the same time, Housing NZ launched a "community renewal" programme to upgrade the centre of Northcote both physically and socially. Two state houses in Cadness St became a project office in 2004.

Physically, the project has renovated the area's three-storey "star flats" at a cost of $9 million, and built fences around other flats, successfully deterring youngsters who used to smoke on the outside stairs where they could watch for police patrols.

Street lights have been improved, trees that provided "hidey-holes" have been removed, and the shopping centre has installed surveillance cameras.

A $7-$9 million project to replace nine houses in northern Tonar St with 20 new units has been postponed while drainage problems are fixed, but an $18 million plan to replace 15 homes at the other end of the street with 44 new units is about to start.

Meanwhile, project community worker Dude TuiSamoa started the Champs after-school programme, which runs sports on Tuesdays from 4pm to 6pm and arts and crafts on Thursdays. It is now led by a local mother, Emma Pou, with other parents and volunteers from nearby churches, Harbour Sports and Westlake Girls High School.

"There's a lot of skill in this community, it's just finding it and giving support to it," TuiSamoa says.

A Champs volunteer, Samoan-born Pou Seumanutafa, 33, started kicking a football around and playing basketball with some of the teenagers when he moved into Fraser Ave two years ago, and has developed a formal role as a mentor for young offenders referred by the Youth Court.

Another tenant, Tuck Whiu, has taken charge of a community garden and a tool library which is used by 40 to 50 locals.

Another, Sharon Ringwood, started a cooking group for mothers, although that has faded since she started a computer course.

Klaassen and another tenant are talking to Constable Wakefield about reviving a neighbourhood watch scheme, and TuiSamoa is talking with another group of tenants about a possible community patrol.

Independently, a Christian group calling itself "C-Force", led by Christine Snow, asked Onepoto School how they could help. They help with sports and literacy at the school, and started preschoolers' mornings in summer on a small grass patch known as the Cadness Loop which was once to be littered with broken glass.

Nerheny, who helps the group, says: "We drive the truck down, put the toys out on the grass, and everybody comes like bees."

Most importantly, businesses are weighing in. Some, such as Les Day of Aline Communications, have hired youths from the area on a casual basis for years - in his case because he grew up in Cadness St next to Wallace Ngapo.

"We could employ contractors to do it, but it's a way for Wal to get them [youths] interested, get them out of the house and doing stuff," Day says. "It costs you money, but you've got to give something back, don't you?"

Ngapo also secured short-term work for 11 youths when Housing NZ commissioned energy-saving retrofitting of about 200 houses. Most of the 11 now have other work.

Two nearby residents, Hawkins Construction managers Mark Katterns and Rob Hodgkinson, have found jobs for 12 unemployed youngsters in the last three months. Three are being offered apprenticeships.

John Sheen of Eagle Masonry, a Hawkins subcontractor, has taken three of the 12 and spoke to the whole group about how he came out of a similar violent and alcoholic upbringing to become his company's operations manager.

"It's not just pointing the finger at them and saying there's a problem. They've had that all their lives," he says. "They just want someone to believe in them."

How sustainable all these initiatives will be is still unclear. Already, two of Eagle's three Northcote youths have left.

"I think that's actually quite a success," Sheen says. "One out of three is very good, that's no different to any mainstream group."

Housing NZ's initiatives also have an uncertain future because its renewal programme lasts only five to seven years. After that, TuiSamoa's position will be withdrawn and the office will be closed.

Programmes like the cooking class which rely on volunteers are inherently unstable because volunteers often move on to paid work or study.

Wolf, however, senses a change of attitude that augurs well for finding future volunteers.

"There's a sense of ownership by the people who live there, a sense of pride," he says.

"It's still got a long way to go - what community doesn't? But at least there does seem to be a sense of connectedness. Being connected is the key."

BELIEF IS THE KEY

At 16, Wallat Hassan already has a serious police record. But he is being given a chance to turn his life around.

He is the youngest of six in a Turkish family that came to New Zealand eight years ago. When he was 11, a traumatic event involving petrol removed his father from the home.

He was an "up and coming" rugby league player at Northcote Intermediate, but gave up. "I just started getting into drugs. I thought it was more fun," he says.

He went to Northcote College but was expelled at 14 for continual disobedience. Petty crimes, "graffiti and stuff", led to much worse.

"We were just bored and started playing with petrol bombs because we had nothing else to do," he says. "After a while we got bored again so we stole a car from the flats."

Finally, Wallat was caught for an aggravated robbery of a dairy where "one of the guys pulled out a fake gun". He got six months in youth lock-up at Wiri, then 50 hours of community work, all-day supervision with a mentor, and a night curfew.

His mentor, Pou Seumanutafa, supervises his community work. He also takes Wallat to a gym, rock-climbing and to the movies, has enrolled him in a computer course and took him to sit his learner's driving licence yesterday.

Wallat wants to join some of his mates who now have jobs with Hawkins Construction and says his time with Seumanutafa has got him thinking.

"I'm thinking of working with youth, like a social worker. I need to study at AUT or something," he says.

Seumanutafa tries to give youngsters like Wallat belief in themselves.

"I look at Wallat as a lawyer, he's a bright kid, but he just got caught in the wrong crowd.

"Once you are with the wrong crowd, you start getting momentum, you start hanging out with them, and you want more and more. It's like an addiction. It's what those kids are like: 'Mum and Dad don't love me so I'm going to hang out with the others.'

"When you're on a drug, you just think you're on top of the world."

He says youngsters like Wallat simply need someone who cares. "I wish those that are negative about the youth would step up, come out and help."


- NZ Herald

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