A homeless father carried his son on his shoulders from the opposite side of Māngere to Te Puea Marae, because he heard they might have space for them to stay.

They did, and now they are two of the 332 people Te Puea Marae has helped find homes since it opened its doors to homeless whānau on July 24, 2016, in the midst of Auckland's housing crisis.

In the first year of a two-year project, a research team has been interviewing those involved in the Manaaki Tāngata E Rua transitional housing programme to understand why it was so successful at supporting Māori who were homeless.

Research project co-leader University of Waikato Associate Professor Jenny-Lee Morgan said a key theme to emerge was manaakitanga.

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"Manaakitanga is around the ethics of care and reciprocity. It enhances mana on both sides of the relationship."

In addressing people who were homeless, or struggling, it helped to build them up and increase their own agency.

"Within the space of marae, where everybody is eating, sleeping, speaking together, we are all just people. That framing and those relationships make a big difference.

"So when whānau leave the marae, they are still connected on that level."

The marae would keep in touch and do regular check-ups.

"They become part of the whānau. It is a cultural layer of care that is different to anything else. It enables the hard questions to be asked, which is not easy for a typical government service provider, that might be time-constrained."

Homelessness was not one-dimensional, and affected ethnicity in different ways.

"The Māori story of homelessness lies within the larger story of being made landless in our own country," Morgan said.

"Joining those narratives with the modern situation is really important if we are going to address the intergenerational trauma.

"Māori are likely to suffer higher rates of homelessness than other groups, so we need to come up with solutions tailored to that."

Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis said they took a "law and lore" approach, adopting traditional models, along with government agency support.

"Some come here where agencies have not done well, but there are also those where parents have made mistakes - bad budgeting, drugs, alcohol - sad things that have impacted on their kids. For some families it is what they have been doing since they have been on this planet.

"They get some growlings here, but there is a lot of aroha behind it. It is following on from Te Puea Herangi - she had a no-frills, get-on-with-it approach."

Their model of support was "simple", Dennis said.

"Whānau arrive here depressed, down, not a lot going on, looking for help - it was our duty to manaaki, not to judge, but ask how we can help them get through this. The model is so simple it hurts.

"We offer pōwhiri - get to know each other, have a cup of tea, kai, give them a bed, and when they are ready they go out and on their own, and we keep in touch with them. Any marae can do this."

Project co-leader by Rau Hoskin of Unitec Institute of Technology said the project enabled them to study what worked in Māori communities.

"We're beginning to understand why tikanga Māori works to help people feel loved, warm and supported."

The second year of the Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities project, part of the National Science Challenge, would include further interviews and data collection with the aim of developing policies and a framework that could be applied around the country.