The queen is the most powerful character in the game of chess. It can move in any direction and across any number of vacant squares.

My opponent, Lisa, who learnt how to play in jail, wields it like some kind of grand master.

It's her favourite piece on the board.

When I ask why, the 47-year-old answers with a grin.

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"Because she's me, she can move all over the place."

The punch line sums up her recent history.

Lisa says she was living in a tent in Tauranga Domain for just over a year, before moving into emergency accommodation at a holiday park, and then transitional housing in Judea.

Before the tent, she was in her car (which she lost) and before that, was living with a friend.

"It was hard, but I made do."

We are sitting across the table from each other in the Tauranga Moana Māori Trust Board hall on The Strand in central Tauranga.

It is a Wednesday afternoon and Street Retreat is under way.

The hall is one of those old Kiwi classics – dark wooden floors, a stage at one end and a kitchenette off to the side, complete with an opening in the wall where today's lunch is being served.

There are hot dogs, big pots of curry and rice pudding, and sweet treats such as Christmas mince pies. Hot drinks are on offer too – tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

What started as a five-week trial for a homeless daytime drop-in centre in the city has now moved into its sixth week.

That's six Wednesday afternoons where, from 11.30am-3pm, Tauranga's homeless and needy have had somewhere to go.

"It's a fun-loving, caring place to come," Lisa says.

There is always a "mean feed" and someone to talk to. You can read the paper, and play board games such as chess.

"And chill out and just feel loved."

Sitting next to us, colouring in a picture, is Helen.

She says she is living in a tent in Tauranga Domain, on and off.

The chess game is momentarily paused as we strike up a conversation.

"Sometimes I get the odd person in society who will take me in for a night or so," the 45-year-old says.

"It's more now that I get to stay with somebody than what it used to be. Nobody was around to take you in. They looked at you in a different view."

People play board games and colour in pictures while they chat and eat their lunch at Street Retreat. Photo / George Novak
People play board games and colour in pictures while they chat and eat their lunch at Street Retreat. Photo / George Novak

Helen says she has been homeless for about eight years and believes over that time, community support has got bigger and better.

"You're out here on your own and when the community joined in to help support, it's like having a whole family."

She says Street Retreat is "wonderful".

"I look forward to coming here because I know that someone will be here to talk to, provide clothing, food."

If you weren't here, I ask, where would you be?

"Oh, there's numerous places, mainly fishing," Helen answers, before laughing at her own joke.

"No. Looking for homes, trying to keep my area where I'm staying tidy. That could take all day."

She says she used to sleep in a doorway by Tauranga Library, but then got given a tent and a sleeping bag.

That meant she could move away from the buildings in the city, "because it was pretty rough".

She has been in a tent in the Domain for about four years, she says.

Before that, "two years at the library and two years just wandering around".

What's it like living in the tent?

"Other than on wet days?" Helen sighs. "It's pretty rugged. You get eaten out by mice, rats."

That's rough, I say stupidly, lost for words.

"Yeah, and especially when you don't know you're sleeping next to them. You got to give it a good clean out."

Then there's the people, Helen says – "society".

She prefers to stay as hidden as possible.

"I'd rather be not seen and safe, than seen."

During the day, Helen wanders into town and looks for "something better" – a way to get back on her feet.

She hopes to get into emergency accommodation or transitional housing like Lisa did. She hasn't drunk alcohol for eight weeks, she says.

"Homeless but not hopeless," Lisa says, quietly with a nod.

The chess continues and Helen returns to her colouring, the table shaking as she strokes the paper back and forth repeatedly.

There is constant chatter around us and someone is playing a guitar and singing softly.

After a slow start, Lisa and her queen begin to chase my chessmen around the board, setting traps and piece-by-piece weakening any chance of resistance.

She gets up from the table and returns with a hot dog. I'm nursing my second coffee.

Hot dogs are on the menu for lunch at Street Retreat. Photo / George Novak
Hot dogs are on the menu for lunch at Street Retreat. Photo / George Novak

Lisa hasn't always liked chess.

"I hated the game," she tells me.

She found it slow and boring, until she got to know it.

"I quite like it now ... it's quite easy to pick up. It's good too because you get to use your brain. It gets you thinking."

Before she started living in her car, Lisa says she did a welding course at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology.

Now that she's in her own one-bedroom flat, she is applying for work and has the goal of moving into a permanent home. Things are looking up.

"If it wasn't for these people and the kind hearts that they have, we would have had nothing," Lisa says.

"Some of us that have been homeless choose to be here, and some of us have no choice but to be here."

She wraps up the game, we shake hands and I move off to see what everyone else is doing.

"Check mate," shouts Clair Figg from the next table, throwing her hands up in the air.

"Lovely jubbly," she says.

I sit down next to her.

Clair Figg has been on the street for a couple of years. Photo / George Novak
Clair Figg has been on the street for a couple of years. Photo / George Novak

Clair is in her 60s and is also living in a tent, by railway tracks.

"I like the trains," she says.

About a month ago, someone slashed her tent. She doesn't know why.

"I'm getting out of that tent because it's been pouring down with rain.

"I'm fed up with sleeping on a mattress soaked. I mean, literally soaked."

She says she has been on the street for a couple of years now, but sleeping in a tent is relatively new to her.

"That's luxury. I've been on bus stops, park benches, grass, doorways, concrete. It hasn't been easy, believe. But I'm glad I know what it's like the other side of the coin."

She says she used to live in a "lovely kauri villa" in Whangarei, before she went broke and had to sell it. She later rented in Tauranga for a while, but had issues with other tenants, fell behind in payments and was thrown out.

Clair says she needs a roof over her head; she needs a change.

"I'm too old for this … so if there's anyone out there, I really do need a room, with a view," she says with a smile.

As for Street Retreat, Clair thinks it's "marvellous".

"People that are hungry get fed. Simple as," she says.

"I really take my hat off to the people that donate. It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful."

There are always familiar faces and people in the same boat, she adds. Hot cups of coffee too.

"It's close. I can't walk very far, being my age."

Of course there's also the chess.

"It's a beautiful chessboard and he's a good player," Clair says, referring to the man sitting opposite her, the guitar player.

"I'm going to beat him one day, believe me. I've told him, whether he likes it or not, I will."

But didn't you just win? I ask.

Clair Figg about to make her move during a serious game of chess. Photo / George Novak
Clair Figg about to make her move during a serious game of chess. Photo / George Novak

The truth then comes out – the board was reversed near the end of the game.

"Well, he thought he could defeat me with what I had, and I proved him wrong," Clair says.

Her opponent, who also lives on the street, looks up at this point.

"So in a way, we sort of both were the winners, eh?" he says.

Not everyone at Street Retreat is homeless or struggling; some are here for the sense of community, or to help.

Like the volunteers preparing food in the kitchen.

Or Greerton's Janice Thompson, 48, who is here with her husband Syd.

"Being around the homeless … you get to know them or what they've been through," Janice says.

"It's called fellowship and friendship … it's like a whānau."

Then there's 57-year-old Duncan Reihana, who collects donated clothes with his wife Katrina and drops them off every week.

"We've got to meet a few people and what they're doing here is pretty awesome," he says.

Janie Kiriona, 64, is semi-retired – a mother of five adult children and grandmother of seven – from Brookfield.

She is playing Yahtzee with two Māori Wardens, Dwayne and Lance.

"I can only put it in one word," Janie says of Street Retreat.

"Family. That's what I see here – family. Even I feel part of this family."

Janie Kiriona celebrates during a game of Yahtzee with two Māori Wardens. Photo / George Novak
Janie Kiriona celebrates during a game of Yahtzee with two Māori Wardens. Photo / George Novak

She doesn't have a car, so each week her daughter drops her off and picks her up.

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm not doing this just because it's something to do; I'm doing it because I want to."

Dwayne and Lance agree.

"There's all sorts of really cool things happening and it's a safe environment as well," Dwayne says.

"You can come here and actually have a smile and have a laugh and play chess and play games with everybody and we don't have any real problems."

Angela Wallace, of the Community Angels Tauranga collective, which set up Street Retreat, can be seen making her way around the room, chatting with the attendees, eating curry, helping her fellow volunteers.

"What we're really working towards is having a five-day-a-week Street Retreat in a building that we can call our own," she says.

The first five Wednesdays of the trial were spent at Holy Trinity Church, but because of prior bookings, Street Retreat had to shift this week to the trust board hall.

It will be hosted here next week as well, before a break over Christmas, and then back to Holy Trinity in the New Year.

Angela Wallace chatting with one of the Street Retreat attendees. Photo / George Novak
Angela Wallace chatting with one of the Street Retreat attendees. Photo / George Novak

A permanent, reliable home is the goal, Angela says, especially with the Tauranga City Council's incoming restrictions on begging and rough sleeping in the CBD, Greerton and Mount Maunganui.

"From the 1st of April, council have the power to move people on from outside doorways of shops, so we just really want there to be somewhere where people can go, to get some respite off the street."

Before I know it, two hours have passed and it's time for me to get back to the newsroom.

At one point in the afternoon, a delighted Clair had been given a new tent and sleeping bag, donated by a generous member of the public who had heard about the slashing and soaked mattress.

As I say my goodbyes and leave, I find her sitting outside on the steps, in the sun.

I wish her all the best with the new tent and she thanks me, a smile on her face.

"It has been a living hell," she says.

I walk down the driveway towards The Strand, with some words ringing in my ears.

It was something Lisa had said about Street Retreat and other community meals in the city while she was whipping me in chess.

"You'll find that there'll be, especially with the homeless, a lot of lives changed. And there has been. People don't see that, but there has been. We know."

I can only hope Lisa is as accurate with her outlook as she is gifted with her queen.