Jubilee Park used to be Northland's premier rugby league ground, but has now fallen into disrepair with an uncertain future. In the first of a three-part investigation reporter Adam Pearse talks to the people who call the park home and their neighbours.
An iconic Northland sporting ground has been abandoned to become home to the homeless, sparking concerns from neighbouring schools.
Jubilee Park has stood decrepit for about eight years and recently saw people move into the disused grandstand.
And they face being moved on again - park owner Whangārei City and Districts Rugby League Incorporated is carrying out negotiations to lease or sell the land.
The plight of the homeless in the North last week drew Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi to Whangārei day centre, Open Arms, to hear first-hand from people about the issues they faced and what services would best help them.
Jubilee Park's formal history stems from the 1930s, after which it hosted teams from France, Great Britain, Papua New Guinea and the United States who played the best Northland and New Zealand had to offer. Records suggest local games were last played in 2011 with a fire five years later razing the clubrooms.
The park is alongside Whangārei's Tarewa Rd, close to the centre of town, and barely a 10-second drive from State Highway 1.
It's new life as a home for those without homes was discovered during an Advocate investigation into the park's future.
It led to meeting Marie*, one of five people who call Jubilee Park home.
Marie sleeps in barren, graffiti-riddled changing room that has been brightened with the few home comforts she and others have been able to obtain. A bed is tucked securely at the back of the room while its main space contains a small table and chairs.
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Sheets and tarpaulins hang over the exposed areas to shield the grandstand's inhabitants from the cold, the light and the rain. While empty bottles and cans litter the outside of the grandstand, inside is neat and tidy.
Marie said her home of about six months was a step up from her life on the streets.
But she said the park itself was a waste of space that could be better used to help people.
"We used to bunk school and drink [at Jubilee Park], it's always been a spot," she said.
"We've got nowhere to go, we've just got nowhere to go."
Marie is a recovering meth addict and a self-professed alcoholic. While she was grateful to have a roof over her head, Marie admitted she sometimes struggled to cope.
"It chips away at you, at your wairua [spirit]. You get down and it is depression and I feel it coming on."
Marie hoped to move out in the summer and either go boarding or find a place of her own. In the meantime, living just metres from two schools, an early childhood centre, a camp ground and general suburbia, Marie said she felt like one of the community.
"We get waves and all the neighbours chat to us, it's like they just accept us.
"We are totally harmless, we are just trying to live, we just want a roof."
Nearby schools echoed Marie's distaste for the park's state and raised questions as to whether those living in the grandstand presented a health and safety risk to their children.
On what used to be the park's carpark, an early childhood education centre, Mokopuna, stands next to the primary school of Te Kāpehu Whetū Tenia, both of which occupy the land under a lease agreement.
School principal Hoana Te Aika, who had been in the role since 2015, said on Monday the pupils had not been allowed onto the field for about four weeks after rumours circulated that human excrement had been found on the field.
Te Aika said her main concern related to a recent incident which saw a man talk over the field's fence to pupils while taking off some of his own clothes.
She said such incidents did not occur regularly and she didn't know where the man had come from.
"It's only escalated this year and it's the one or two who really push boundaries."
Christian Renewal School also shares Tarewa Rd with Jubilee Park and has an agreement with the owners trading use of the field for lawn mowing.
Principal Rodney Lloyd said people living in the grandstand was concerning and advocated demolishing the park's remaining buildings.
"Anything would be better than what it is now, even if we don't get to use it," he said.
"It's just disgraceful and it's a bad image for anyone in Whangārei driving past."
He said he didn't know of any interactions between his pupils and people at the park.
Jubilee Park shares a fence with the Whangārei Central Holiday Park on its north eastern side. Holiday Park manager John Rudsdale said the neighbouring park was an eyesore and had been a security concern.
Residents spoken to by the Advocate said they had experienced no trouble from anyone living at the park and their main concern was how the park was going to waste.
"They cause us absolutely no trouble at all. You wouldn't even know they are there and the ones that do go up and down the street are polite and mind their own business," 55-year-old Steve said.
"It's a waste of great space, that's my personal opinion. I actually think it would make a terrific emergency housing place, obviously it's never going to be a sports field again."
Dilan, a 28-year-old father to two young children, said safety wasn't a concern living just minutes from the park. He said the space was wasted and felt it would be better used as a playground or a general sports field.
Cindy, who had lived next to the park for about five years, said the park's residents never caused them any grief, and she thought the space should be used in better service to the community.
Council community general manager Sandra Boardman said the need for social housing and other forms of support had been recognised by council as a key issue for the community and it would be examining options in 2020.
In a statement yesterday, Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi, said he understood Whangārei to be one of the hot spots around New Zealand where there were serious housing needs.
"We are working closely with providers on the ground to offer emergency housing options while we also work on increasing housing supply – both through government sources and community housing providers," he said.
Whangārei City and Districts Rugby League Incorporated co-director Sharon Bird said there had been about four big approaches to buy the park in their roughly 20 years of ownership. None were finalised.
"For me, it was always in my heart that maybe we can get [the park] going, I was never prepared to give up," she said.
"For me, there's got to be something better out there for the park and for the people of rugby league because whatever happens, it's got to be beneficial to rugby league."
Bird, a self-professed league stalwart from the Portland club, believed Jubilee Park's demise was due to a number of factors including a decline in competition, financial struggles and the evolution of rugby league.
Bird, whose house overlooks the park, said it was heart-breaking to see the park's decline and felt the local league fraternity was answerable.
"It's all very well to have a park but it's when you've got nobody to do the work for it, because there's not that many volunteers out there willing to put their hands up."
Bird hoped current negotiations would go towards the betterment of rugby league, but she would not comment further on the park's future ownership or lease arrangements.
Whangārei District Council chief executive Rob Forlong said the building was not being used as a grandstand or being let as accommodation so it did not breach any Public Health or Building Act requirements.
Forlong also said the rundown fence along Tarewa Rd was privately owned and council had no legal right to compel the owners to fix it.
* Marie requested a pseudonym to protect her identity,
Monday: The history of Jubilee Park
Tuesday: What does the future hold?