Diane Robertson: Desperate times at city mission

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More and more Aucklanders are finding themselves in a poverty trap and need help, writes Diane Robertson
Every day families queue at the Auckland City Mission for food and presents for the children. Photo / Greg Bowker
Every day families queue at the Auckland City Mission for food and presents for the children. Photo / Greg Bowker

It's the season of goodwill and giving, with Christmas Day but a week away. Queues of children are waiting to enter Santa's Bach in Auckland's Silo Park.

The bach is New Zealand's version of Santa's Grotto, and once inside, children are entertained with a collection of festive-themed activities, including dressing up and writing elf applications to send to Santa on a jandal conveyor belt.

Santa himself is in attendance in the last room of the bach, with a wall of television screens delivering elf updates from around the world.

One final surprise awaits the kids as they leave through the back door of the bach: a sneak peek at a caravan where Santa's reindeer are stabled in preparation for the big day.

The delight on the children's faces is obvious, as they end their Christmas journey through the uniquely Kiwi Santa's Bach.

At the Auckland City Mission, queues are forming too, with the line snaking down Hobson St. Arriving as early as 6am, families wait patiently for the mission doors to open.

Once inside, families wait their turn to be interviewed by Work and Income to see if they qualify for special needs grants. This interview is followed by an interview for food parcels and Christmas presents.

There are few decorations, and no Santa's elves around to give a hand. Everyone I meet tells me how embarrassed they feel to have to ask for charity, but they have nowhere else to turn. It's a long wait, but mission staff, identified by their red T-shirts, move through the crowds, offering assistance and pacifying tired children.

Most families will leave the mission with a food parcel that will last for four days, and each child will receive a donated gift.

Two very different queues; two very different experiences for children and their parents.

One is filled with joy and laughter; the other weighted down with worry and exhaustion. At this time of year, the demand placed on the City Mission's resources is almost impossible to describe. Last year, in the fortnight before Christmas Day, we distributed 2150 food parcels to struggling Aucklanders - an average of 1075 food parcels a week, compared with the usual 500 to 800 a month during the rest of the year.

The need continues to rise.

Over the past four years, the number of people coming through the mission doors has doubled.

Since 2006, the demand for food parcels alone has climbed from 4455 a year to 11,168 in the last financial year - an increase of more than 150 per cent.

Given the increasing numbers, the Children's Commissioner's recently published finding that one in every four children lives in poverty comes as no big surprise to the City Mission.

The report found that child poverty was a reality in this country. What the mission sees every day is entire families living in poverty.

An unforeseen job loss, a health crisis or a death in the family can push families over the edge in an instant.

Oftentimes, parents are forced to make difficult trade-offs: pay the rent or take the children to the doctor? For many of our clients, Christmas brings extra expenses, and added difficulties in many forms.

The mission exists to help Auckland families in desperate need.

We have been doing this since 1920, and will continue to do so for as long as people, who have nowhere else to turn, need help.

Christmas is a week away. Just as the children who leave gifts at Santa's Bach for the City Mission to share with families who, otherwise, will go without, I want to urge all Aucklanders to become someone's angel today.

Support the work of the mission, because everybody deserves a break.

In this city of 1.5 million people, we are all so closely connected; you never know who you might be helping this Christmas.

Diane Robertson is chief executive of Auckland City Mission.

- NZ Herald

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