The buses come and go but from 6.30pm on a Monday and Friday, a crowd of people at one bus stop in Tauranga stay put. They're here for Milo Night ...

"Warm socks, warm socks," Tracey Carlton calls out.

"Warm socks, my love," she says as she places some in the arms of a man on Willow St in the city centre.

It is a balmy Friday evening and Milo Night is under way.

The twice-weekly gatherings to help the homeless take place at a bus stop directly across the road from the downtown council building, where late last month councillors voted to continue investigating a ban on both rough sleeping and begging.

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This community response to homelessness started simply – with a man offering to share some pizzas.

It is now a coming together of all types of different people – homeless men, women and children living on the street or in cars, volunteers wanting to help them, and a wider community of generous benefactors donating everything from restaurant-quality meals to clothing and books.

The Bay of Plenty Times Weekend is welcomed with a compulsory scone slathered in butter and jam.

Tracey continues to hand out socks and clothing – each item gratefully received – and introduces Pierre Keti. The korero begins.

The instigator

"I just came down with some spare pizzas about a year ago and fed some young ones that were on the streets and then from there it just escalated," the 45-year-old Pierre says.

"So I started coming down every Monday at 7pm with these pizzas, and some people from church caught on to it – they started coming down with some stuff too."

Pierre, who was on the street himself and is now living in a van, initiated what is now known as Milo Night.

"We found out these people are more interested in the Milos than the pizzas," he says.

Pierre says "the sister Tracey" stepped into his shoes about five months ago and is doing a fantastic job.

"And all the people that are out there that've been helping us out – they're doing amazing too."

What started with leftover pizza and morphed to include a hot drink continues to grow.

There is now also water, cordial and a range of donated food as well as clothing, blankets, toiletries, shoes, bedding and as of a few weeks ago, a small library of books.

"Man, they've got plenty of time to read, my bro. Just like if you go into prison for a while, you've got plenty of time to read," Pierre says of the latest introduction.

Cafes and restaurants in Tauranga and Mount Maunganui have also got on board with Milo Night.

Excelso Coffee donated 6000 cups for the hot drinks, provide 10L of filtered water every week, and also contribute home baking and recycled clothing.

Restaurants in the Mount, including Pronto and Fish Face, cook and donate meals every Monday.

Love Rosie Bakery and Delicacy cafe donate spare food and so do Me & You cafe and eightyeight cafe.

Pierre says it all started with a simple gesture, and "trying to make a change".

"What I took from society, I wanted to give it back."

The bus stop is humming.

People are coming, going and congregating. Some sit on the bench for a while and eat and drink, others stand around and chat.

Two young girls, one in a purple and pink jumpsuit, stand out from the crowd.

The twins

In July this year, Hine and Pania Attwood, 9, went to Dunedin to visit their uncle and saw people living on the street.

"We were thinking about that for a while, and then we came back home to Tauranga, we asked our mum and Aunty Tracey about what we could do about it," Pania says.

The four started helping out at Under the Stars – which provides meals and more for the homeless in Tauranga – before finding and focusing their attention on Milo Night in the CBD.

Pania is genuinely passionate about helping the homeless.

"Two words – love and kindness."

Those are things, she says, more people could demonstrate.

"Especially to all our streeties here."

The twins go along to most Milo Nights and have even made some new friends.

"Aunty Tracey introduced us to this really cool guy called T," Hine, the one in the jumpsuit, says.

"I don't really know his real name, but everyone calls him T. And I write him notes, and he draws me and Pania pictures and in my room, I have pictures of his art, and I really like it."

Upon meeting T, it's clear the admiration is mutual.

The budding artist

His name is Tirua Awa. He tells me he lives in the doorway of a shop on Devonport Rd in the city.

The 33-year-old has been on the street for one year and seven months.

"These people are good – how they feed us along here," he says.

"Tracey and the twins – I care for these two."

Tirua says they admire his art and encourage him to carry on drawing.

"I wasn't a person that was drawing; I was begging for money and trying to earn something to get us a kai and something warm to keep us warm in winter.

"They're helping out our people on the street to learn how to read, write, supporting us with the kai."

Tirua points out two pieces of his artwork stuck to the glass wall of the bus stop and says they were inspired by Kai Aroha and Under the Stars – two of the food charities in Tauranga.

Kai Aroha, mainly based in Greerton and Papamoa, started bringing spare food to Milo Night and helping out every Friday night about four months ago.

Tirua says he is more of an artist than a reader, but he has taken a few books from the new library. He is reading one called Dark Horse.

"It's a lovely book to read. I haven't finished reading it; I'm willing to finish it – hopefully tonight. I'm sort of slowly getting into it."

At one point, Tirua spots the twins' mum, Ani Bennett.

"This lovely lady over here, she's a lovely lady … and she's encouraging me to carry on."

The mum and lawyer

"So the kids, they were our inspiration," Ani Bennett says of her daughters, Hine and Pania.

The 42-year-old employment lawyer says the twins insist on going to Milo Night.

Ani says she has just watched a psychologist give a talk about homelessness and what he said explained a lot.

"He said it had been scientifically proven that when children walk by homeless people, they always notice them and they always say something, whereas adults don't tend to do that. A child can't help themselves doing that. So I think children have the heart for other people, they really feel compassion."

She says Milo Night is more about talking and connecting than the food.

"And it's the same with the books – it's just a way of showing that they're loved, and they're seen. Where so many times they're ignored and they're not seen.

"The truth is some of our whanau can't read, but those that can – it's just a way of engendering conversation and connection."

As the evening progresses on Willow St, people can be seen wandering up to the small wooden library on the bus stop bench.

They browse and sometimes walk away with a book or two.

One man is more than happy to discuss the benefits of reading.

The bookworm

Glen Bates says he has been living on the street in central Tauranga for just over two years.

The 40-year-old says providing free books at Milo Night is "fantastic".

"I grabbed three last week, and I've knocked two off already."

He enjoys crime and spy fiction and has just finished all of Ian Wishart's books.

While the small wooden library is excellent, it does have its limitations when it comes to Glen's appetite for reading.

"Well, I prefer that one," he says, motioning to the city library across the road.

"Mate, such a selection there. My backpack is extra heavy because I read."

He emphasises that last word to show how much.

Glen says reading is an excellent way to pass the time.

"I can just chill out, not think about how f**ked up my life is and get into some type of bearable story."

Escape? "Yup. And that's how it is."

The cook and woman behind the books

Kate McKellar White (centre) with daughters Elly Jane Shirley and India Shirley. Photo / Andrew Warner
Kate McKellar White (centre) with daughters Elly Jane Shirley and India Shirley. Photo / Andrew Warner

During the school holidays a few months ago, Kate McKellar White's 7-year-old son was having an "absolute meltdown" because he could not charge his iPad.

"And on the radio that morning they had been talking about the crisis with families in cars and how many there were at the current time and it just … it made me feel quite physically sick," the 36-year-old mother of three and restaurant owner says.

"Just imagine being a mother trying to put her kids to sleep in a car each night and how they would feel not being able to cook meals, not being able to shower, wash anything. It just brought a huge reality home to me."

Kate says recognising you have quite a comfortable life while "in our backyard, there are massive problems" prompted her to do something to help.

"I realised one thing I could give to the community was food."

And so for the past three months, every Monday evening, Kate had been cooking for about 40 people at Milo Night.

Beef bourguignon, chicken drumsticks, fried rice and lots of veges were just some of what the owner of Mount Maunganui restaurants Pronto and Fish Face has served up.

Kate says it is also a chance to educate her kids – aged 4, 7 and 10.

"Even in the school that my kids go to, there are a lot of kids living in caravans or in garages and things like that. And they don't know; they have no idea.

"So my kids have come and served food. It's been brilliant. It's a good thing for them to do because it teaches them not to judge people. They can look in the eyes of these people and ask if they'd like more food."

A few weeks ago Kate mentioned to Tracey an idea she had about including books at Milo Night.

"I've got two passions in life besides my family: books and food," Kate says.

She had watched a programme a few years earlier about retired doctors from an emergency department in Kings Cross, Sydney who started a mobile library for people on the street.

"It became such a social thing; people had something to talk about, something to get excited about, share. It was a distraction from the hard realities of their own lives.

"And that's what books can offer you – that's why I read. I'm so exhausted at the end of the day, I sit down and I get lost in a book for a couple of hours."

Kate asked the principal of Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa if they could do a book drive and three mornings of donations later, there were more than 4000 books for Milo Night.

She says having a meal also brings people together.

On this particular Friday evening, there are plenty of hot chips to go around, spare food from cafes, home-cooked meals and baking, and food from Kai Aroha.

And a man named Damien arrives with an arm-full of pizza boxes.

The former meth addict giving back

Damien Anderson battled through addiction to get to this point.

He says volunteering at Milo Night "to come and serve the people" is part of his calling.

"Giving back to the people because back in those days I believe I was like a person that helped destroy our people, just through the meth and all that stuff.

"So it's time for me to give back for hurting them."

The 32-year-old says it is beautiful to see people helping each other like this.

"It's good to have people like us and the sister [Tracey] and the bro Pierre and that, to start something like this, to help our homeless instead of looking at them and judging them. I mean, who are we to judge them?

"It's good that we have people that have a good heart that come out here and serve our people, because they are human, brother."

Ban on rough sleepers

The Tauranga City Council is currently investigating a ban on both begging and rough sleeping.

The investigation will happen as part of a review of the council's Street Use and Public Places bylaw next year.

It is also looking into working with other groups to address homelessness in Tauranga.

The clothing provider and shoulder to cry on

Natasha Bonne describes the Arataki Clothing Bank as a little Facebook project she started.

But what the 42-year-old, and the community behind her, brings to Milo Night should not be understated.

For those living on the street, a fresh pair of socks can go a long way.

Seeing Tracey hand them out at the start of the evening made that abundantly clear.

Natasha says socks, hoodies and blankets are the most popular items among the streeties.

"Hoodies always go the fastest. But then they're limited to what they can carry around with them."

The Arataki Clothing Bank, which started coming to Milo Night every week about six weeks ago, also provides shoes for the homeless.

"The community part of it is really important for them against depression.

"I know there's a lot of bad comments about the drug addictions, the alcohol, the mental health issues. But they need this – they need the family environment of it."

Natasha is not only the lady who brings the clothes and shoes but is also a familiar face and an open ear.

"I've had ladies come and talk to me and have a cry and have a hug and just say 'oh I love coming down here, people really care about us'. It's just heartwarming," she says.

"It's really hard because you're here, you feed, and you give some clothes, and then they're off to go and find themselves somewhere to sleep."

Like under a bridge.

The softly-spoken youngster

When I ask his name, I think I hear "Nicky".

He is softly spoken and quiet.

"Nicky?" I repeat and begin to write it down.

"No Mickey, like the mouse," he says.

Mickey Nelson – when we meet for the first time – is living under a bridge with his partner. He says things are "pretty tough".

They have been there for a couple of weeks.

"We moved off the streets because we can't sleep, can't get to sleep on the streets and live on the streets," the 26-year-old says.

"If you sleep by anywhere, security come wake you up. You try and sleep in a sheltered place and those places where the toilets are."

When Mickey says this, there is no anger or resentment in his voice. It is gentle, almost accepting.

"It's the first year I've been on the streets. I lived with my family; I've always lived with my family. First time I've experienced something like this."

He says he wants stability as soon as possible – "but it's going to be a process" – so he can get in the right head space and prepare for his courses.

Mickey "most definitely would like to work at the moment".

He says he is a regular at the community feeds in Tauranga and has been coming to Milo Nights for about a month.

"They're so helpful. Tauranga has got great help for the homeless out here, and I'm very thankful, we're all grateful for what they do."

Mickey is also a reader and says for the first time he has picked up a couple of books from the Milo Night library.

He says he likes encyclopaedias and books about animals.

"I do like reading because reading's good for me because it's helped me develop my reading skills over time."

Mickey has hope for the future.

"I pray for the best, and I hope for myself and the people I care about."

The aunty and gardener

About 45 minutes after arriving at Milo Night, I finally manage to pull Tracey Carlton aside for a quick chat.

The 49-year-old gardener from Bethlehem is a live wire.

Along with the socks, she is constantly handing out food and pouring hot drinks.

When Tracey is not introducing people, she is embracing or chatting to them.

"I love it," she says. "I'm in my groove – I love it. The people are amazing."

Tracey is all about people – that is clear from the moment you meet her.

She talks with such passion, speed and spirit it is not hard to be carried along with her.

And you can see that affect on others too – the way she instantly picks them up.

Tracey has been coming to Milo Nights twice a week for five months solid – she has not missed one night.

She has noticed a lot of change, she says.

"When we first started five months ago, nobody would make eye contact, nobody would speak with each other, nobody would engage, nobody would have conversation.

"Over the five months, because I'm a little bossy and I talk to them all the time and I shake their hand and I call them sweetheart, we've built a connection, community and I think they now feel we are all family here. And so this is like a whare for us. And together here, we're all family."

She is completely invested in Milo Night and the people who rely on it.

"This is our core group – these are rough sleepers. This is why I wanted to have their back when I went to council the other day. Because as far as I'm concerned, they are very deserving of everything and we all think it is a huge privilege to take care of them."

Tracey is quick to give credit to the volunteers and her fellow Milo Night organisers, Kevin England and James Sheridan.

"I really hope that the Tauranga community will step up with us and be supportive in the sense of let's pull together with caring and compassion."

She also points to her two twin nieces, Hine and Pania, who inspired her to do something in the first place.

"Children are the future for forming a caring and compassionate society."

Tracey says the next stop is donated and recycled bicycles and literacy – free reading and writing classes for the homeless, starting in 2018.

***

A little over a week later, on a Monday night, the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend returns to Milo Night to find an even bigger crowd and an impressive banquet.

Softly-spoken Mickey Nelson is there again and is enjoying a plate full of fresh kaimoana.

There is a barbecue going, music, and a festive summer atmosphere.

Things are looking up, Mickey says. He is back living with his mum.

The facts

In August, Tauranga's rough sleepers were counted and recorded by name for the first time.

The headcount, done as part of an effort to build a true picture of homelessness in the city, revealed up to 70 people sleep rough on the streets.

The research, which was presented at a Tauranga homelessness hui last month, also identified another 400 people who, while not sleeping rough, also fit the definition of homeless – Tauranga's hidden homeless.

They included families living in cars, emergency accommodation, uninhabitable homes and moving between family and friends.