Nicknamed the Squeegee Bandits, a group of mainly troubled young adults are striving to get their lives on track by earning a few dollars washing windscreens at city intersections. SIMON WATERS goes behind the squeegee and meets the husband-and-wife team who have opened their hearts and their home to help make it happen.

MOST STRIKING about Stephen Manihera is his serenity.

He has an aura of aroha. But don't take that to mean he's soft.

Stephen, 43, is the main driver behind the Squeegee Bandits, a collection of about 20 young adults, many of them rudderless and from troubled backgrounds.

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The former Raetihi bus driver and his wife run an unofficial foster home. A place where lost young people come for a roof over their head, some kai and a place of safety.

"It all started in Raetihi, taking children in, children from broken homes. We were like foster parents - people who care."

Stephen offers them a chance to earn a few dollars and learn valuable life skills, washing vehicle windscreens at Whanganui's busiest intersections.

He organises the crew, trains them how to stay safe while weaving between vehicles, and teaches them life lessons like how to handle rejection.

"Some people get a bit shitty. We wish them a nice day and walk away."

He tells his charges: "Making your way in the world is mostly about how you react to things."

He also provides them a family.

The Squeegee Bandits not only work together, they live together.

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At least, they did.

KEEN TO WORK

Stephen began washing windscreens a little over a year ago after the family moved to Whanganui from Raetihi.

His wife has fulltime work and Stephen picked up part-time hours at the city recycling centre, a job he still holds and cherishes.

"I'm keen to do a job."

But with five of their own children, plus an ever-increasing whangai family, money was tight.

"At the time we could do with the money, like everybody else out there could I guess. So one day I just happened to wake up and thought I'd give it a go."

Jobs, he says, aren't that easy to come by, especially in Whanganui, and especially for unskilled workers.

"I thought I'd use the lights as a reference ... by being out there all day every day, being dedicated to something, other than just our family in the afternoon. We're always looking for fulltime employment."

He also enjoys interacting with the public. "If we can leave people with a smile that's not bad."

Stephen's daughter Charlotte was one of the first to join him on the squeegee. Other members of the extended family began to follow.

Stephen is reluctant to discuss how much they earn. Other washers, not part of Stephen's crew, have claimed they can earn several hundreds of dollars a week. Stephen is doubtful.

"Some of them are on unemployment and some of them aren't. They know they can earn up to about $80.

"When we ask drivers if they want their windscreen washed we're looking at something like a koha, which can range from 10 cents to a million dollars I guess. The more polite we are out there the more people are sometimes giving."

Payment comes in different forms. Some people even pay with food. "They'll give us a couple of ice-blocks, or a burger or a pizza. That's all good, we crack up laughing.

"Everyone's got to eat. We share it amongst ourselves."

Usually they are gifted a $1 or $2 coin.

The most Stephen has been paid at any one time was $60. That lady now receives free cleans. "I remember that face. I go straight up to her car before I do anyone else's car. She might be the fourth car in line, I'll skip everyone else and go directly to her car and do her windows. And then I'll think about myself."

LIVING ON THE STREETS

At 15, Raymond is the youngest of the pack.

A year ago he was "couch surfing" and living on the streets.

"I would stay on couches. Sometimes I would sleep outside, depends where I am at the time. When I was living on the streets I would smoke the old crack, but I don't anymore."
Raymond hasn't been to school in four years.

"School isn't a big thing for me. I'm more like a country boy, not a town boy."

He found Stephen's crew through his brother. "He started going round to Keith St, and then I started going round there. I sort of fell into the pack."

"I don't normally stay in one place for too long. This is the longest I've been somewhere for a while, with this crew."

Raymond's parents are still alive, but he doesn't have much to do with them.

"I don't have good communication with my father. Him and I are like at each other's necks. And my mum, yeah sometimes I get along with her, depends on what mood she's in really."

Raymond is at home with a squeegee in hand. He dances between cars, a bright cheery smile and a bounce to his step. For perhaps the first time in his life, he has purpose.
Stephen's keen to steer him towards education. Raymond's not so sure.

"I never liked school. I don't really plan much. I just go with the flow."

GET A REAL JOB

Not everybody appreciates being approached to have their windshields washed.

"Some get shitty," says Stephen. "One of the major insults out there at the moment is 'get a real job'.

"We can't reply to that because we're in the public eye, we're trying to keep things good and sweet out there for ourselves so we can carry on doing what we're doing.

"All of us window washers come from all ages, different backgrounds. Myself I can brush it off, but how do these other guys cope with it?

"We all individually deal with stuff like that differently. The first question I ask is how do you feel about it [being verbally abused]. Does it make you want to stay away from the lights, does it make you want to carry on, does it make you angry, how's that make you feel. Nine times out of 10 they say it's all good."

Family discussions, about life on the lights, relationships, anything, are common.

"I'm not going to portray us as one big happy family. We all have our gripes and niggles along the way. But one thing we do do is we get it sorted by sitting down and having a family meeting.

"We must keep our chins up and attitudes in the right place."

For the record, Stephen says people who don't want their windscreens washed just need to wave their hand to say no, and the washers will move along.

"It's all about image out there I'm afraid. We're not out there to destroy our image. That's when we have problems with council."

GOING HIGH-VIZ

But problems with council may just be a matter of time.

Last year former district councillor Ray Stevens tried to get the windscreen washers banned after complaints from drivers about being pestered for money.

A council website poll overwhelmingly wanted rid of them too. Council is still considering the ban and will likely discuss it again later this year.

Stephen says whatever the decision, people should know that his crew are not the only windscreen washers out there.

"Last year we were having problems with all sorts of window washers - thought they should be paid a million dollars and they were getting angry with the public.

"We had to isolate ourselves, hence the reason why we wear high viz. So now when people make complaints they can say it wasn't the guys in high viz gear, it's those other chappies."

The high visibility gear is also about road safety. "We also got to cover our OSH side of life."

Stephen teaches his charges to remain safe at busy intersections; look for a way out, or "be a statue", he tells them, and "don't run through traffic".

"We're not out there to cause accidents."

The hardest thing about the lights, he says, is handling all the nos. "It can get uneventful, especially for some of these young fellas here."

But he tells them every day is a different day. Every windscreen washer has his day.

Stephen says the police have been good and that his crew get a lot of support from them.

Officially though police have concerns about windscreen washing in general and advise drivers not to take part.

For now both council and police tolerate and watch.

HOPES AND AMBITIONS

But windscreen washing is just a means to an end. For Stephen his children and whangai family are the number one priority in his life.

"My hope is that when school starts back up they get back into schooling. Unfortunately we live in a world that's all about a dollar. What I mean is if you don't have any type of education behind you it's hard to get a job and get ahead in life."

Stephen leads by example. He enrolled himself in a Computers In Homes course, from which he proudly graduated last year. "Computers are as important as reading and writing these days. I needed to know this stuff to help the family."

He encourages the older ones to do courses also. "There are times in life when you have to go back to school. I'm afraid if you're not up with the play you get left behind."

HOMELESS

Things changed just before Christmas when their Keith St rental was sold and they were forced to find a new place to live. That has proved difficult for such a large family.

"We got dispersed a bit, here, there and everywhere. We keep in contact on the phones, to make sure everybody's okay and all that jazz."

Stephen's current accommodation allows for only six people, so the search for a suitable place to live continues.

"Somewhere big enough and where the landlord is happy for us all to be together."

Stephen worries for one of his whangai children, 19, who used to live on the streets and who has been forced to find somewhere else to live until the housing situation is sorted.

"The people that he's with more or less just use him - go out there and make some money, buy us some alcohol and all that jazz. It's not what he's about. He wants to turn his life around, go forward, and not get stuck."

Wherever they end up the rules will be the same. "When you step inside our gates, before you do that, you shake off all your shit and problems you have with other people in our house, or keep going.

"I believe that by keeping things as basic and as simple as, it's helped these guys a lot.

"If they're staying here the night all I really expect is they get a couple of bread. A couple of dollars for bread and butter. That's all we ask for.

"We sit down and talk to them and see where they are in life and how we can best perhaps help them out. A lot of the problems they have are fairly simple -- like a roof over their head; complications with boyfriends and girlfriends.

"We don't like to interfere with their relationships unless they want to bring it to the table and we would sit down and discuss it.

"For a lot of them it's just somewhere they can call home. We'll come back together again, for sure."

Surely, that's got to be worth a dollar.