Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: December cruellest month for poor

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As Christmas approaches City Mission's work of supporting families and the homeless gets even more urgent.

Dimitri Germanov and Ray Murphy prepare food parcels for the needy. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Dimitri Germanov and Ray Murphy prepare food parcels for the needy. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The noticeboards in the public area at the Hobson St headquarters of the Auckland City Mission make grim reading: "Bread is available 10am-5pm Monday to Friday", says one notice. Only half an hour, from 8.30 to 9, is set aside for "emergency clothing".

They seem more apt to a refuge in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But these notices are faded with age, because this is a normal state of affairs.

On any given weekday morning - this morning, for example - this room is crowded with clients.

In groups or singly, they sit and wait for some of the food they can't afford. Oddly, perhaps, given their straitened circumstances and the grinding need that has driven them here, many are far from gloomy. Their whispered conversations are punctuated with explosions of laughter and the mission staff move among them, clipboards and files in hand, with a sense of purpose that is anything but resigned.

It seems almost superfluous to mention that almost every face is brown. Again this week a report by a working group of health professionals confirmed the well-established truth: poverty and its markers - poor housing, health, employment and educational achievement - weigh disproportionately on Maori and Pasifika people in the country that has always been touted as a great place to bring up kids.

And December is the cruellest month. Added to the stress of everyday living are the particular demands of Christmas. The Missioner, Diane Robertson, says this is the time of year when the needs that the organisation answers are different in quality as well as degree.

"Children are moving, sometimes over long distances, between different parts of the family," she explains. "You may normally have three children and all of a sudden you've got eight.

"And then there is the stress of putting food on the table for Christmas when the family comes together. A lot of these families, throughout the year, put food at the bottom of the list: they pay their power or rent or other things. But like everyone else, they have some expectations of enjoyment at Christmas."

Out the back, foodbank workers Dimitri Germanov and Ray Murphy load up the trolleys: a box of groceries; 1.5kg each of basic vegetables. Only after clients have been interviewed and staff at the Winz counter on-site have established they are getting all the benefits they are eligible for, is the trolley wheeled out.

Some of the food is donated, whether regularly (Goodman Fielder gives 3000 loaves of bread a week) or as one-offs (a pallet of ginger ale that was too dark for sale). Vegetables and meat must be bought to ensure freshness and quality. The meat is mainly sausages.

I wanted to collar Germanov and Murphy for a chat, but in the few moments when they weren't working, they proved pretty adept at avoiding me. Presumably they think their actions speak louder than words. That was certainly the attitude of the Rev Jasper Calder, who founded the Auckland City Mission in 1920 and who happens to have been my grandfather. It was conceived as a religious enterprise to spread the word of God among the poor and the working class, but Jasper soon came to see that its primary duty was "to help the underdog in his grim battles against life's difficulties".

Almost a century later, those battles are grimmer than ever. The mission's attitude used to be that a family would get six food parcels a year and only when they were in crisis. But, says Robertson, things have moved "from crisis to chronic".

"These families' lives are not going to change after six parcels. They are not going to suddenly get jobs or have enough money."

The abiding feeling after a visit to the Auckland City Mission is that the needs it satisfies are enormous and apparently unquenchable. The notion that those who seek out its help are "lazy, bludging beneficiaries" is still distressingly entrenched, staff tell me. Meanwhile, the notion that some New Zealanders can survive only as beneficiaries of charity is something we have learned to live with.

"We now have a culture that this is okay, that this is acceptable," says Robertson. "As a country, we celebrate how many schools we are going into to give food to kids.

"So long as the Government doesn't acknowledge that poverty exists, it won't develop strategies to deal with it."

- NZ Herald

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