CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE
In the second of a two-part series, Local Focus journalist Hunter Calder investigates how hard life of the streets can be for a woman. Check out part one here
Over the last few years, New Zealand's homelessness has grown dramatically. We now have the worst rates in the OECD.
And it's not just a problem confined to the big cities. On some streets of regional New Zealand beggars are now a common sight.
Recently beggars in Greerton, Tauranga were accused of threatening behaviour while others faced criticism for pooling their meagre resources or for begging while not actually being homeless.
But being a homeless female presented its own challenges which Paula Gwilliams knows only too well after eights years on the streets.
"I remember the first few months, I hated it," she said.
"I hated having to try to find somewhere to sleep, somewhere that was safe, like blankets, having to carry around bags of blankets.
"Trying to find places where we could stash our stuff so we weren't carrying it around all day.
"Unfortunately, the council would find them and they'd destroy them and so we'd go back to our place and they'd be gone, so it would be another cold night until we could find some more," Gwilliams said.
She and her partner first ended up living on the streets of Tauranga after he suffered an injury which left him unemployed and they fell into drugs.
"Crack! That's what did it," she said, referrring to P or methampehtamine.
"We discovered that we liked it. The more we worked, the more we bought. "We did have friends that took us in for a while, a week here then we'd be back out for a few days, a weekend. But you can't always rely on your friends and your family, you can't be a burden to them.
"It got harder for us because we were a bit drug-****ed! It got harder for the tenancy people to give us a home they didn't want to put any trust in us," she said.
"We applied, oh my gosh we applied for so many places, run down little flats and flash three-bedroom houses, but no, no, no, you're not the right tenants."
Despite the hardships of life on the street, Paula managed to hold down her full-time job as a chef.
"I hid it from my boss that I didn't have a home.
"I made sure that I always found somewhere to wash before I went into work so it looked as if I had come from home.
"I made sure that I was never dirty or smelly when I went to work…. and then my boss found out. It was after about 18 months, he found out.
"He wanted to help me but I didn't want a hand-out. And then I had my accident."
Paula injured her hand on the job and there were several complications with the surgery.
By the time she recovered, the chef jobs had gone.
She moved home to Hamilton to be closer to her tamariki, but with no money or job, she eventually resorted to begging.
"The first day I did not like it, still even now I don't like it.
I've been slapped, one guy even got out of his car and screamed in my face 'You're just a ****ing beggar!' That had me in tears."
But there was worse to come.
"I was sexually abused by one of the other men on the streets, so yeah that kind of… I became wary about some of them.
"Like I thought they were my bros, I thought they had my back, but when that happened I distanced myself from them, I kept three of the bros close."
The 47-year-old says reading was her life-line when she lived on the streets.
"I have read that many books it's not funny. I'm known as the book lady.
"Reading kind of made the day go faster, if I had nothing to read, it was a very long boring day."
Finally, after years of hardship and abuse, a few weeks ago Paula got some good news.
With the help of The People's Project Paula got off the streets. She found a house to live in, the first roof over her head in almost a decade.
"Life's changed in the sense that my kids and my mokopuna can come visit me now and they can stay the weekend.
"Just being able to have friends come visit and have a coffee, being able to offer someone coffee, that's a big change."
Step-by-step, Paula's life was improving. She's in regular contact with her two sons and, for the first time, looking to the future. She wants to start her own business as a cake maker.
With just $49 a week for food, there was little to spare on ingredients but Paula was determined to get her life back on track.
She has a message for other beggars and homeless people who hold up their hand-written begging signs in the street.
"You've got to be honest with your sign. What else have you got but your own integrity?
"And if you can't be honest, you've got nothing."
Read part one: Why trespassing the homeless doesn't solve the problem
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
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