Reporter Simon Collins and photographer Jason Oxenham spent a night with the Auckland City Mission looking in on the lives of some of Auckland’s car dwellers

Living in a car has become a new form of homelessness in central Auckland, but it cannot be blamed simply on the housing crisis.

Auckland City Mission homeless outreach worker Charlotte Ama counted about 30 people living in cars and vans when she took the Herald on a guided tour of the old Tank Farm area on the waterfront on Monday night. At times, she says, there are up to 50.

Further round the foreshore, at Coxs Bay Reserve, we found two more vans. Sometimes there are up to 20.

About half the people we found were European tourists. Another was an Asian international student who declined to talk to Ms Ama the last time she visited, so we left him alone. And the half-dozen others who agreed to speak to us each had different reasons for being there.

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John Nia

John Nia, 64, was greeted by Ms Ama as "the mayor" of the Tank Farm because he has lived there for 12 years and has a white beard like his Taranaki ancestor Te Whiti. He was away when we first called. Later, we found him in his lean-to canvas kitchen around midnight, and when we drove past again yesterday he was out on his bike.

Charlotte Ama of Auckland City Mission pays a visit to John Nia who has lived in a car on Auckland's waterfront for 12 years. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Charlotte Ama of Auckland City Mission pays a visit to John Nia who has lived in a car on Auckland's waterfront for 12 years. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I was trained [as] a draughtsman," he said. "But I got a debilitating disease in my eyes and couldn't do any more detailing work. I decided to go truck driving and drove trucks for 38 years."

He has had a distant relationship with two adult children in Australia since his marriage ended.

"It was an acrimonious departing, I just walked away from it," he said.

He often lived rough while driving trucks in Australia, so he is used to cold nights.

"When I travelled I used to live like this anyway," he said.

"I got sick. I had a big think about what I wanted to do, and I like to live outside. I catch fish. I can afford to eat, and eat well. You can't do that living in a Housing Corp house."

Wayne

At 55, Wayne is almost a decade younger than Mr Nia, but a hard life shows in his deeply lined face and straggly long white hair. He opened only a small upper window in his van to talk to us, and declined to be photographed. He has been at the Tank Farm four years.

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"I had my own house for 20 years," he said. "My wife didn't want me in the house so she got a loan on the house to have me thrown out. I turned up at court with no lawyer and got everything thrown at me. I was given three days to move out of the house that I had paid off for 20 years."

He has kept in touch with his two sons, now aged 27 and 22, but he has had to give up his old concreting business and cannot afford to buy a house again. "I'm on a sickness benefit, I went through a pretty bad stage," he said. "I can't go back getting mortgages."

Christine

Christine's garden is on the back of her motorhome which she parks at Hamer St.
Christine's garden is on the back of her motorhome which she parks at Hamer St.

Christine, a small, slim woman who looks younger than her actual age of 60, had just come back from the gym and was tending the herb garden on the back of her motorhome when we found her just after midnight. She does fulltime shift work and sold her house to buy the vehicle with a plan to travel the country in her retirement. She has been at the Tank Farm two years.

"I didn't expect to be in Auckland this long, but hey, I'm still here," she said. "I just haven't got there yet. Once I see myself clear financially, I will."

Her home has a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and lounge.

"People say, 'Have you got a fridge?'" she said. "I say, 'Has your home got a fridge? Well, my home has a fridge.' I've got everything I need."

A tradesman

Living in his car is a retirement savings plan for a lively man in his 60s, who wound down the driver's window to talk but declined to be named. He's a self-employed tradesman who started living in the car when he got work on the Christchurch rebuild, and stayed in it when he returned to Auckland a year ago.

"It's better for me to blimmin' well live like this and not spend money on rent and rates like all you other buggers," he said. "I'm going to need it when I can't work any more. It's my nest egg."

He gets work all over Auckland and parks up somewhere nearby at nights to avoid the peak hour traffic. He was at the Tank Farm this week, but if he is working on the North Shore he parks at Milford Beach - if he is out west he will park out there.

He looks for a place with free wi-fi for his tablet, and showers at public swimming pools. He has a bed, a duvet and "a bloody good heater".

"I'm as snug as a bug in a rug in here," he said. "If I wasn't, I wouldn't be here."

TJ

TJ, 63, is disabled and wanted no photos. He spoke to us while sitting on the floor of his van with his head holding up a black cloth that normally gives him some privacy.

He has had a lifetime in business, including two small furniture factories in Auckland, and a courier business in Australia. He came home last year after his business was "wrecked by Telstra", stayed for a while with a friend in Kaitaia, and has lived on a benefit in his van in the Tank Farm since November.

"This is purely a business decision," he said. "I'm $90 a week better off, I'm getting myself started in life again.

"I chose to be here for six months, but now it's really cold so I'm moving into a place. It's a private rental. I can just afford it, including income from work of $100 or $200 a week."

Jesse and Lorielle

Jesse Hamilton, Lorielle Vidot and cat Jango live in a van at Coxs Bay.
Jesse Hamilton, Lorielle Vidot and cat Jango live in a van at Coxs Bay.

We found Jesse Hamilton, his partner Lorielle Vidot and their cat Jango in their big new Toyota Estima at Coxs Bay Reserve. They have given up jobs to take to the road but after three months they have yet to leave Auckland.

"I like the idea of trying something different, it's good to be put out of your comfort zone," Mr Hamilton said.

Ms Vidot, 26, said life in the van was "pretty cool". They shower at places like the Tepid Baths, where they can also have a sauna.

Mr Hamilton, 21, reckons he has already saved about $3000 in rent. "I had a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house full of my junk," he said. "It's been nice to cruise around and have no ties."

5 ways to get help

City Mission:

140 Hobson St, (09) 303 9200.

Lifewise: 09 302 5390; Merge cafe, 453 K Rd, (09) 379 1969.

Mental health: Taylor Centre, 308 Ponsonby Rd, 0800 376 105.

Addictions: Community Alcohol & Drug Services, (09) 845 1818.

Income & housing: Work & Income, 0800 559 009.