As far as catchy slogans to promote a town go, how this sound: Kawerau - Better Than Brunei?

The small town in the Bay of Plenty, with a population about 7000, has a reputation much bigger than its size would suggest, and not in a good way, with unemployment and truancy rates among the highest in New Zealand.

From the latest available Census figures, 61.1 per cent of people aged 15 years and over in Kawerau District had a formal qualification, compared with 79.1 per cent of people in New Zealand. The unemployment rate in Kawerau District was 24.7 per cent for people aged 15 years and over, compared with 7.1 per cent for all of New Zealand.

And the town is often in the news for crime and drug busts. Last month, a Mongrel Mob member was shot dead by police after robbing a bank.

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Police at the scene of a shooting near Kawerau after a man robbed a credit union at gunpoint and fled. Photo / Stephen Parker
Police at the scene of a shooting near Kawerau after a man robbed a credit union at gunpoint and fled. Photo / Stephen Parker

But residents say it's not all bad. In fact, living in Kawerau has been a lifesaver for 18-year-old trans-person Oliver Tapiki-Thorpe.

"I can get why people's perception of Kawerau would be bad. But unless you've actually lived here, you don't really know.

"I had a huge amount of anxiety and I was really, really depressed," he said. "And being able to be here, be honest about who I am with myself and with people around me, it's really freeing."

Oliver was raised in Japan, and then lived in Brunei, a small country in south-east Asia.

Oliver says strict conditions and tough laws in the small Islamic country meant it was difficult to come out as a LGBT person. He moved back to Kawerau with his mum almost three years ago.

"It was really cool going from a place where I had to be constantly hiding, stressed out, 'what if someone finds out, what if, what if, what if...' to just be myself.

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"I got a lot of people being like, 'be careful, don't put yourself in a place where you might get hurt' or something like that but I'm pretty quiet.

"The school that I went to here in Kawerau, Tarawera [High School], immediately all the staff were accepting and they made sure I was comfortable and that I could be myself."

Just down the road, Charles 'Mackey' Hohepa agrees.

"There's things that go wrong in this town for sure, but there's no difference to any other town."

He was brought up in Onepu just outside of the Kawerau, but he went to school in the town and raised his family there. He spent 48 years working at the mill.

"The schools were good, the primary schools I went to and the college I went to, but at the end of the day I guess it was me that needed to work harder."

The Kawerau District Council declined an interview but mayor Malcolm Campbell did say he was committed to turning around the negative statistics.

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