Last refuge of the desperate

By Simon Collins

Methodist Mission for the Homeless worker Michelle Kidd wept after she asked a judge to send a man to jail last month. "The judge invited her to say something and she had to say something that was against everything she would normally say," says a lawyer who was in the Auckland District Court that day.

"She burst into tears at the end of it because it was so difficult for her to say this while he was listening."

The 33-year-old man had been sleeping at the disused rugby league ground, Carlaw Park, and in other city parks. He had recently been beaten up. He was in court on six minor charges including breaching a ban on consuming liquor and solvent in the central business district. He had a long history of similar charges.

He had also recently had a stroke.

"His whole body was swollen. He said, 'I'm feeling like I was before I had my last stroke'," Kidd says.

"Sometimes our long-term Homeless - that's with a capital H - will actually benefit from proper medical attention within the confines of jail, because we haven't got somewhere that's enclosed where people can detox safely outside jail.

"The Homeless are trespassed from hospitals and rehabilitation places when seeking help while intoxicated."

Howard League secretary Heeni Phillips, who was also in court, says Judge Simon Lockhart was reluctant to send the man to jail on such minor charges.

"He didn't want to do it," she says. "He really did his best to explore different things, but he was left with no options."

He sentenced the man to six weeks in prison. This week the man came out after serving half his sentence.

"He is so much better for three weeks of detox, discharged from Mt Eden again to homelessness," Kidd says. "So much more healthy for the time cared for by nurses and doctor at the Mount [Eden]. He is now more prepared for the winter to come."

This was not an isolated case. In another one this week, a tearful mother pleaded with a judge to jail her 18-year-old son because, as a sole parent with other children, she could not cope with his methamphetamine addiction.

He, too, had been living on the streets after the mother got a trespass order to bar him from the family home. As he left the dock, he gave his mother the fingers and shouted abuse at her.

"His eyes are so sunken that you can almost visualise death in them," Kidd says. "You beg for your child to be held in custody so that they will not die. That is the reality.

"Our prisons are not filled with criminals, but with people who have nowhere else to go because we are letting them down as a society. We are locking up our sick."

For many homeless Aucklanders, jail has become the only alternative to the street. Two night surveys in May 2004 and last year found 64 and 81 people sleeping on the streets and in parks within 3km of the Sky Tower.

Workers at the Methodist and Auckland City Missions, which provide food and clothing for the homeless, estimate that a fluctuating total of between 150 and 400 people sleep homeless each night.

They doss down in doorways, under buildings, on disused railway platforms or in the 30-bed Airedale St Night Shelter.

The Parnell Fire Brigade has been called to repeated fires at Carlaw Park, finding people cooking their dinners or just keeping warm under the empty grandstands, in the old press box and in a kiosk at the entrance to one of the stands.

Nationally, the numbers of "no fixed abode" have risen from 594 at the 1991 census to 960 in 1996 and 2409 in 2001.

This is not entirely new. Perhaps for as long as our species has existed, we have turned those who are disruptive or dangerous into outcasts.

Until recently, we locked them up in mental asylums and in remote detox centres, such as Hanmer and Rotoroa Island.

The feminist and civil rights movements which took off in America in the 1960s, ended those practices. People with mental illnesses and addictions had rights too. One by one, the asylums and detox centres closed - Rotoroa Island just last December.

On the streets

But the services that were meant to support people in the community have not always materialised. Some people have ended up on the streets.

Some are there by choice - just as some people have voluntarily "gone walkabout" since the earliest times.

"I needed a break. I needed somewhere where I was not living by society's set of rules," says Kajynn, a young bicycle courier who lived on the streets for four years.

"I did it to train myself. I did it to help out those who were out there because I found too many people were judgmental."

Jono, 21, claimed the street name "Wise" when we met him with a girlfriend at Victoria Park after midnight last week. He is proud of being "rough and raw" and of knowing where to get food, free showers - and drugs.

But even for those who claim to like the streets, there are usually "push" as well as "pull" factors.

One-eyed "Mr X", 42, is an extreme case. He says he fled to the streets at the age of 7 because his father drank and his mother beat him. He still has scars on his head to prove it.

He has been stabbed and shot twice. He survives with a mix of drugs, alcohol and solvents. He has started three detox programmes, but regressed each time. Last week he was barred from the City Mission for a month because of violent behaviour.

"If I could turn back the clock and have the same knowledge I have now as a 7-year-old, I would never do it again," he says.

Another man, aged 33, suffers epileptic fits which he believes were caused by the way his mother "chucked me round".

"I was taken off her by Social Welfare. I have been to seven or eight Social Welfare homes," he says. "I came on to the streets to harden up."

Huia Taite, 43, became homeless in 1998 because he couldn't pay his rent.

"A lot of the money went on to the marijuana," he says.

Rob Veevers, 30, has just arrived from Christchurch, where he took medication for a health condition and worked as a factory hand. His gear was stolen soon after he got to Auckland, he stopped taking his medication and ended up homeless.

"This is the first time I've ever lived on the streets. I don't like it," he says.

He wants a job, but feels he couldn't cope with work without a place to live.

Another man, 36, also felt that he could not get a job until he had a house when he was first interviewed for this story 10 days ago. He had been on a Housing NZ waiting list with no results for six weeks until the Weekend Herald asked the corporation about his case last Tuesday.

On Thursday, the corporation gave him and his partner a house in Grey Lynn.

But another man, 39, has not been so lucky. He left his wife and three children in Wellington and came to Auckland to get work on building sites in the 1990s, but was never able to earn enough to get a decent house for the family.

He has a chronic liver illness caused by being stabbed when he worked as a security guard in Wellington in 1992, and has been out of work for a year.

"I've been on and off the streets for the past five years. At one point I was living in my car and going to work," he says.

He has applied for a Housing NZ house, and squatted in a friend's flat until recently. But he has still not been allocated a house of his own.

Frances Herbert, who was elected on Monday night to chair a committee of "streeties" who use the City Mission, says alcohol and drugs are often not a cause of homelessness, but an effect.

"A lot of the personal problems in people's lives are mental disabilities, breakdowns, loss of marriages, loss of children. Then they become dependent on alcohol and drugs because they haven't found the right support to help them," she says.

Help

But help is available. The City Mission appointed a fulltime social worker for the homeless last August and has a volunteer doctor on Tuesday mornings. The Auckland District Health Board has a four-person "homeless team" based at the Taylor Centre in Ponsonby.

But there are also gaps. Taylor Centre manager Peter Dobson says less than a quarter of the homeless have identifiable mental illnesses and come under his team's remit.

"That doesn't mean that the rest don't have psychological issues caused by childhood abuse or drug and alcohol issues," he says.

"There isn't a service for the ones with psychological issues. There are services but they don't meet the needs of homeless people - they don't keep appointments."

Community Alcohol and Drugs Service manager Robert Steenhuisen says homeless people like anyone else can apply to his service's detox unit at Carrington Rd, or to the City Mission's unit in Federal St. The usual waiting time is about a week.

He says "a case could be made" for a mobile outreach service, but it would have to be a generic social work service rather than purely for addictions.THE Salvation Army runs an eight-week residential programme at the Bridge in Mt Eden, and has a nearby 90-bed hostel, Epsom Lodge, for homeless people either waiting to get into the Bridge, just out of jail or with long-term mental health issues.

It also has three support houses with live-in staff for people graduating from the Bridge and needing a bed while they look for long-term accommodation. The Wings Charitable Trust runs a further seven support houses, although it usually has a waiting list of several weeks.

"We can't meet the demand," says trust manager Shane Lewis. "Our funding [from the district health board] determines the size of our business."

The volunteer doctor at the City Mission, Howick GP Tony Hanne, says the biggest tragedy for the homeless was the closure of Rotoroa Island.

"It's an absolute disaster because it was able to remove people from the immediate environment, which is absolutely vital," he says.

He notes that more than half of his patients at the Mission are Maori. Maori and Pacific Islanders made up 61 per cent of those found in the first survey of the homeless in May 2004 and 58 per cent last year.

Maori also make up all but one of the mission's homeless committee, including Frances Herbert. They see a need for Maori trusts to work in the inner city.

"A lot of the Polynesian people won't come to the Europeans and ask them for work," Herbert says.

"A lot of our people have been displaced, moved to different parts of the country, broken away from their family groups.

"Some of us don't want our families to know where we are. It could be sexual abuse, crime, owing somebody. It could be we don't want to take responsibility."

Or, as another committee member says: "You don't want the family to know you are living under a rock."

To crawl out from under that rock, says Hanne, requires "someone to go to".

"Every Tuesday I raise this issue with a number of people: if you are going to stop doing something that wrecks your life, there has to be something that fills the gap.

"It's a mixture of purpose in life and people who care about you, and there is definitely a spiritual element to that also," he says.

"I look first for motivation: do you actually want to move away? The answer is usually yes. Then who is there for you, and what does that person have to offer in commitment, values, experience, wisdom, and money, that means they are going to be able to do it?"

Most families, he says, have their "black sheep". Family members need to link with other people who care and then "consider in your own extended family, who do I know who has crashed and offended everybody and got written off, but is still there?"

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