Annemarie is the magazines editor and regular columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Hope for family who slept out in car

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Priscilla Pukeroa, above, lived in a car with her partner and 4-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo / John Borren
Priscilla Pukeroa, above, lived in a car with her partner and 4-year-old daughter for six weeks. Photo / John Borren

Former Whangarei couple Priscilla Pukeroa, 25, and Anthony Daniels, 52, and their 4-year-old daughter Chardonnay spent six weeks sleeping in their car in Tauranga parks as they hunted for a rental.

The family moved to Tauranga for a better life and to escape what Ms Pukeroa describes as a "negative environment".

But Tauranga's tight rental market caught them by surprise.

The image of Chardonnay in her sleeping bag that moved Pete Chandler, of Bay of Plenty DHB.
The image of Chardonnay in her sleeping bag that moved Pete Chandler, of Bay of Plenty DHB.

Ms Pukeroa admits she was "naive" when the family decided to leave 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.

"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."

When the family arrived in Tauranga Ms 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'."

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.

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. 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 so they lived off fast food.

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

"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," Ms Pukeroa said.

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.

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, the chief operating officer of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board.

He 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. Mr Chandler said 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. Thanks to financial donations from the community, almost three 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 Ms Pukeroa.

Last Saturday was the deadline when the family would have to be turfed back on the streets. But Pukeroa brokered an agreement with the motel owner and Work and Income to be able to stay on a week-by-week basis.

Pukeroa said she wanted to share her story because there were others like her.

"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 Northern Advocate learned at edition time that the Ms Pukeroa's family have accepted an offer of a Housing New Zealand home at Whakatane, south of Tauranga.

- Northern Advocate

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