THIS week saw splashy news coverage of local National Party candidate Harete Hipango and Alfred Ngaro (Community and Voluntary Sector Minister) paying a visit to Whanganui's Koha Shed.

Excuse me for being a little bitter and cynical about the pre-election timing.

It was all smiling faces and cooing about how wonderful volunteers are - "the backbone of the country," declared Alfred Ngaro. Harete Hipango called it a "real privilege" to meet Sherron Sunnex, who ran the Koha Shed out of her garage before buying the old Scout Hall on Duncan St in Whanganui East.

I think the Nats have a nerve showing up to the Koha Shed - three terms of their government have deepened the desperate need for services like this.


Why is it volunteers are required to provide emergency care for vulnerable people, who are without food, everyday necessities or a roof over their heads? Isn't this why we have a social security net? Isn't this the responsibility of government agencies, resourced by taxpayer money?

Instead we have a small group of volunteers co-ordinating gifts from the wider local community, who are keeping people from starving.

When Work and Income won't help, its staff send those people down to the Koha Shed - which doesn't receive a cent of government money. Other local government-funded agencies like the Salvation Army, City Mission and Birthright also refer people to the Koha Shed.

Reading the Koha Shed's Facebook timeline, I find them celebrating a donation of $380 from the local New World. It enabled them to pay their lease for another year.

I don't know whether to weep or rage ... this place runs on the smallest sums of money and an ocean of love.

I found Sherron Sunnex propped up bed at Whanganui Hospital this week, recovering from a hip replacement she's waited too long for. She was in good form and happy to answer my questions.

A 59-year-old mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Sherron is also caring for a young, high-needs child. She's worked most of her life, she says, starting when she was 14 and juggled three jobs while raising her kids.

The Koha Shed is a full-time job and for a time Work and Income recognised it as such and didn't hassle her about receiving the benefit.


But that policy has changed, and once Sherron's hip has healed, Work and Income will demand she look for paid work. Never mind that she already has a full-time job.

While I'm sitting with her, Sherron fields multiple phone calls and from her hospital bed calmly organises assistance.

In the space of a couple of hours, I see the team's efforts on behalf of a family with only two feeds of formula left for their baby; a bloke who has just walked out of prison with nothing; and someone with stage four cancer who is 24 hours away from homelessness.

When I first read the stories about the Nats' visit, I thought the Koha Shed folks had been played. It turns out I'm oh so wrong about that. The pollies turned up - Labour candidate Steph Lewis showed up a month before Harete Hipango - at Sherron's invitation.

If the Nats got some political mileage out of feelgood media coverage, the Koha Shed benefitted, too. Lots of unexpected donations have arrived in the days since the news story.

Sherron speaks plainly and she's very shrewd. I believe she didn't mince words when Harete visited, describing National election sweeteners as "too little, too late".

She also invited Harete and her campaign team to "put their hands in their pockets" and suggested they donate some new underwear and socks: such items are urgently needed she says.

Take a close look at the Koha Shed's Facebook page and you'll also notice news of Harete's visit is bookended by posts pointing to political commentary critical of the Government, like Duncan Garner's "report card full of fails" and Newshub's summary of parties' policies on poverty.

Harete's Facebook post declared: "I shall be regularly investing and giving more of my time and energy to the kaupapa of the Koha Shed."

By deadline, she hadn't replied to my question about what form that would take.

I hope it's more than a personal donation. We need representatives in Parliament who will take action on behalf of the 680,000-plus people mired in poverty. We need the root causes - 33 years of neo-liberal cult thinking - addressed, not tinkering around the edges.

The Koha Shed urgently needs a volunteer with a trailer or truck/van for half a day or a day a week. If you can help, text 027 40 40 240 or contact @thekohashed on Facebook.

*Rachel Rose is a writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter - more reading and sources are online at