New Zealanders of the year: Diane Robertson

By Catherine Masters

While most of us eat our ample dinners, put on warm clothing and climb into a comfortable bed at night, Diane Robertson is the voice of those who sleep rough, who have little to eat and not much in the way of warmth.

The Auckland City Missioner is a woman with a big heart and this year revealed big plans for the homeless.

She was appointed missioner in 1998, the first woman and the first from outside the ranks of the clergy to take the role.

She is a determined and unafraid advocate for the deprived. For them Robertson will speak out, challenging the establishment when necessary.

She did so earlier this year, in the middle of the bitterly cold winter, when she objected to what she said was the Government struggling to put a positive spin on the degree of poverty in New Zealand.

In an article for the Herald she told of an increasing feeling of hopelessness in the poor and their growing sense of resignation about not being able to get out of the poverty trap.

"Yet, when we have talked about these things the Government has accused us of lying and exaggerating."

The truth, she pointed out, was that people at the bottom of the heap have slipped even deeper into poverty.

Robertson is described as straightforward and honest, passionate and charismatic.

"She's as likely to be cleaning toilets with a group of homeless people as she is being the CEO sitting behind her desk doing high finance kind of stuff," said a staff member.

Which brings us to Robertson's plans for the homeless. The mission is based in Hobson St and has long been a friendly place for street people who need a bowl of soup or families who need some blankets. Robertson has been working with business leaders, the city council, Housing New Zealand, St Matthew-in-the-City next door to the mission, and others, to create a haven for the homeless.

The plan is to redevelop prime land, including the mission's present site, and build a high-rise which will house homeless people and serve as a hub for social services and accessible health care. Retail and commercial development may help pay the bills.

Robertson is said to have two bottom lines for the project. One is that there are 100 apartments for the homeless and the other is there be a further 50 apartments for solo parents who would be able to keep them for three years while they study for a better future.

Review was told Robertson is not just visionary - "she's someone who can get an idea and actually make it happen. And she's not afraid to stand on a few toes if it's going to get her where she wants to go."

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