Hurimoana Dennis: Finding homes for people with myriad problems was the easy part forTe Puea Marae

Hurimoana Dennis, chair of Te Puea Memorial Marae, looks back over the marae's efforts to help homeless people during the winter.
Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis talks about current housing crisis and how they haven taken in more than 181 people at the marae. Photo / Nick Reed
Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis talks about current housing crisis and how they haven taken in more than 181 people at the marae. Photo / Nick Reed

Poverty showed its ugly head in a car, van, carport or an overcrowded garage. The homeless were no longer just rough sleepers, they were dads, mums and kids, 181 to be exact, 104 kids and 77 adults.

Or 152 Maori, 17 Pacific, 10 Ethnic, 2 European whanau - it didn't matter how you looked at it, it was always sad and in some cases very bad.

In the end they kept coming and coming and coming and they all had their own unique set of circumstances: overcrowding, eviction, living below the poverty line, bureaucracy and poor decisions.

To be honest, finding them all homes turned out to be a relatively easy task. It was all the associated issues such as strep throat, rotten teeth, self-harm, unemployment, family violence, drug or alcohol abuse, mental health, bail conditions, court appearances, financial debt, lawyers, officials, rejection from whanau and vulnerable kids, that presented the most challenges.

The kids all went to school from the marae, either in taxis, Maori Wardens' vans or carpooled in whanau cars. Making lunches was the first duty for parents each day and they all did this together from the whanau kitchen and dining area.

What we learned

On the ground we learned a lot. We learned the marae was a better front door for this social service provision, it took away all the visual barriers and allowed agencies and marae whanau to get on with doing what needed to be done.

So not only did we find them homes we worked with others to resolve a wide range of issues that were specific to each whanau. No appointments, no waiting in queues, no frustration.

Rough sleepers were not suitable for the Manaaki-Tangata (helping people) programme as many of them had high-end mental health and substance abuse issues that needed intensive compulsory treatment. We also had a no tolerance policy for any threat to vulnerable kids - we made no excuses about this, mokopuna and tamariki came first.

We also learned the person or persons who managed the social housing stock and the priority waiting list needed to look like the same person or group, this would minimise any delays, miscommunication and frustration for marae whanau, clients and agency staff.

We learned that while social service qualifications was a good tohu to have, we noticed very quickly it was qualified people who could have, should have, done more to help. In fact many of the qualified people and their mandated and funded agencies were dropping their clients off at our front door or trying to refer them to us.

We couldn't understand this and in some cases it made us angry and frustrated. In any case, most of our marae whanau happened to be qualified at something and gave freely of their time to help out. It was our nannies, kaumatua, kuia, matua and kaimahi who held the line and they had the biggest qualification of all, life experience.

After 13 weeks (or 99 days) of working, breathing and sleeping for the "homeless", we have some observations on what has caused all of this.

Whanau: some whanau (not all) have let their own whanau down. They know who they are. They had struggling whanau but for many reasons were unwilling or unable to help. Whatever the case more should have been done to support them.

Bureaucracy: agencies and NGOs who should have been there for these whanau rawa kore were not, or they tried to deal with this problem between the hours of 8am and 4pm, or applied a business as usual approach. It didn't work. No one had their eye on the big picture, there was no plan or strategy and everyone got caught out.

Also agencies really needed to change the way they engaged with Maori and Pacific whanau. Whanau Maori and Pasifika needed to also be patient. In some cases it was all-out confrontation: judging, bias, racist behaviour and poor perceptions and service. It didn't need to be that way, but there was not a lot of good will. If there was any movement forward, this really needed to be a starting point.

• Decision making. Whanau had to be up front and own their issues and problems (everything). If they did not we would have all been chasing our tails. We did not judge them we just got on with what needed to be done.

• Affordability, poverty, call it what you want. All our whanau rawa kore got "priced" out of the housing market, this meant they had no options. All they could afford was an overcrowded accommodation or in one case a flash van was a "mobile home".

What we ended up with?

We always knew they needed a place to live or a home, and that was our focus. But we didn't just want to find a home and leave them there, otherwise some would have been homeless again within days or weeks.

All up, we did 62 assessments of needs, which equated to 181 people. Of them, 84 were placed into permanent homes or lodgings and 45 were placed in temporary homes (motels or private) awaiting permanent placements.

All told, 43 whanau received foods parcels or advice or general support (not really homeless), nine were asked to leave for not following the kawa of the marae.

We gave whanau many hours of support for doctors, dental visits, laundry, court visits, police warrants to arrest, probation hui, kohanga reo and school drop offs, relationship counselling, updating, cancelling or correcting benefits, budget advice, advocacy support for whanau with agencies, the list really did go on. But it all had the focus of ensuring whanau arrived at their new whare at least 80 per cent free of issues so they could get their lives back on track.

The public gave us over $200,000. It cost us $10,000 a week to run our kaupapa. We have since given $40,000 and surplus food, clothing and furniture to four other charities that help homeless whanau.

We have $10,000 of bills yet to come and we will use any surplus funds to restore the marae to how it was before we started. Anything remaining we will put towards a smaller, more focused version of Manaaki Tangata.

What next for Te Puea Memorial Marae: Manaaki Tangata?

Our clothing and food teams are preparing containers to go four separate ways, and our social services team is completing client evaluations and follow-up visits making sure our placements are fit for purpose and that all our whanau have plans moving forward.

This will all go towards our final report to the Board of Trustees and to our major contributors and sponsors, which may well set the scene for a Te Puea Memorial Marae: Manaaki Tangata V2, who knows?

Whatever the case, we at the marae, and the 1200 people who came from around the country, were volunteers. For 99 days we got out of our beds, came here and gave service to those who had very little, or in some cases nothing at all, with humility and sincerity.

We are grateful that we have not only made new friends but have been part of transforming the hearts, minds and lives of 181 Maori, Pacific, Ethnic and Pakeha whanau.
We know our lady, Te Puea Herangi, would have been proud of our efforts and we also know that her name will remain a big part in the lives of 181 whanau who came to our marae seeking Manaaki Tangata.

- NZ Herald

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