The Whare to the Whenua initiative is helping vulnerable Northlanders get into their own homes. Reporter Jenny Ling visits a whānau in Waitangi to see first-hand how it works.
Eric Monk's entire adult life and much of his youth have been one long vicious cycle of mental illness, addiction and prison.
For the past 26 years, the places he's called home have included jail cells, a family members' couch, and caravan parks surrounded by other transient alcoholics.
The 43-year-old Northlander has never gone longer than a year on the outside before being locked up again for alcohol-fuelled crimes such as theft, burglary or breaching his jail conditions.
His situation has become so dire his sister Sharee Tito once had to identify him in Whangarei Hospital's intensive care unit after he was hit by a car while riding his bike under the influence.
Tito has had her share of sleepless nights worrying about her brother, who often roamed the streets at night with nowhere to go.
"He was always doing stupid things under the influence, like stealing alcohol and other burglaries, but never anything violent.
"Since he was 17, he's been in and out of prison. His mental health has deteriorated and has not really ever been addressed."
Monk had been serving out his most recent six-month sentence at Mt Eden Prison and was transferred to Northland Region Corrections Facility in Ngāwhā during the nationwide level 4 lockdown.
On his release in August, he was dropped off at Tito's place in Waitangi "with just the clothes on his back".
That's when Tito – who lives in a papakāinga housing development on ancestral Māori land with around 30 whānau - called her mate Rhonda Zielinski for help.
She'd heard about Zielinski's initiative to supply portable cabins to Northlanders forced to live in cars, tents and garages due to reasons ranging from addiction to rental shortages and job losses caused by the pandemic.
So far 17 cabins have been delivered to individuals under the Kaikohe-based Whakamanamai Whānau Trust's new 'rent-to-bless' scheme called Whare to the Whenua.
Recipients of the 6x3-metre cabins, which cost $25,000 each, pay what they can afford each week, and no deposit is required.
The cabins are gifted to the client once the cost of the building is paid off.
Not only does Monk now have a warm, dry place to call home, if he keeps up his weekly interest-free payments of $200, he will become a homeowner in just over two years.
"This means he's safe, he's home and he's under the watchful eye of us," Tito said.
"He has got the support he needs to be free and he's home living on his grandmother's whenua so that's even better.
"I can sleep at night knowing where he is."
Monk and Tito have cleared a small section of land near the house where Tito lives with her husband. The couple have three sons and seven mokopuna who all live nearby.
The portable cabin was delivered in October and has been furnished with items donated by the Solomon Group, a Māori Private Training Establishment based in Kaikohe, and other members of the community.
When the Northern Advocate visited the Waitangi papakāinga a few weeks later, Zielinski was dropping of a two-seater couch and a small table.
Monk, a man of few words, was incredibly thankful and couldn't stop smiling.
"It's awesome to be back on family land, being with family."
Zielinski said many of Northland's homeless are struggling with complex needs including addictions and mental-health issues.
To be eligible for a portable cabin, they must be willing to address these issues, and this is written into their contract. They must get help from the Whakaoranga Whānau Recovery Hub, which was established in Kaikohe in March to support those with addictions.
"If they don't honour the contract, we'll pick it up and take it away," she said.
"They have to step up too, we can't do everything for them.
"It's about building empowerment and responsibility.
"People need that chance but they can't take it for granted."
Neighbours Tui Taurua and her husband Haami Peihopa are thrilled Monk has returned home. The couple have lived on the whenua since 2017.
For more than two decades, Taurua has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
Her own recovery began after returning to Tikanga Māori following her last stint in hospital in 2001.
"It makes such a difference being on your own whenua," she said.
"You feel more grounded and safer.
"It's important whānau come home. If you want happy hapū that's where it begins."
Tito said her brother was settling into his new life, and enjoyed a routine stroll to the beach each morning.
He helps tend the vegetable garden where corn, kamo kamo and beetroot grow on his section, and he has plans to grow kawakawa and decorate the trellis for some privacy.
He is still under the care of the mental health unit at the Northland District Health Board and must learn about budgeting as part of the cabin contract.
Tito says she is happy her brother has his own space which she believes will benefit his mental health, as will having community support and the company of her children and mokos, who adore him.
"Now he's got his own roof, he's got his own space," she said.
"It's satisfying to know he's home and safe."
There's no place like home
Having a place to call home is vital, says Northland District Health Board psychology professional leader Dr Odette Miller.
Not only does it provide basic needs like security and safety, it also gives people a sense of connection and belonging.
But providing the homeless with a place to live is only part of what is needed to support their psychological wellbeing, Dr Miller says.
"If we have a hierarchy of needs, the most basic is having a place to live and food and water. Our psychological wellbeing is dependent on those things.
"That on its own isn't enough. We have to understand what leads to homelessness in the first place, and build a plan to address some of the things that have happened and help them move forward.
"That needs to be done collaboratively and respectfully with the person to see where they're at and what their priorities are and helping them build trust with people again."
This may include addressing past traumatic events, rebuilding bridges that have been burnt with whānau, and getting help with their mental wellbeing and/or any substance addictions.