A Tale of Two Cities
Kapiti Councillor Jackie Elliott left the plush confines of Sky Tower in Auckland this week to see at first-hand the other side of life in our largest city.
She met and mixed with the beggars, homeless and hungry who suffer on the streets, while the ‘haves’ gorged themselves on food and drink in the warmth of the city’s gambling and conference centre.
Cr Elliott was attending the Local Government conference. Here’s her report:
Homeless on no-one’s agenda
By Kapiti District-wide Cr Jackie Elliott
This one was a chance to bring the latest in local Government ideas back to KCDC’s senior management team, but my most valuable lessons were learnt on the street outside SkyCity.
Rotorua’s Cr Raj Kumar, hit the nail on the head when he rose from the 600 delegates to ask the speaker at the morning session: ‘What about the real problems?
‘Are we going to talk about the real issues outside here, and in every city in NZ. Homelessness, meth drugs, families living in cars, and begging?’
While the “H” word had been dropped a few times, no one, not even the Prime Minister and the other four political party leaders, really dwelt on the homeless long enough to expose their lack of a solution.
Homelessness was on no-one’s agenda.
Midnight walk among the homeless
So at midnight, after the formal awards dinner, while the other delegates were hitting the casino, I went out looking for some answers from some real Aucklanders in my warmest coat, hat scarf — and with pockets full of complimentary chocolates and a spare sleeping bag from home to give away.
On a street seat, I found a teen island girl, who quickly asked for money, but was satisfied with chocolate as a substitute.
She proceeded to wordlessly communicate with signals to a very bagged-down older beggar woman on the pavement and two more teens on opposite street corners.
‘This Palangi is OK’
The well rehearsed messages were, I am OK, this Palangi is no threat, she has no cash, she’s OK, she’s from SkyCity and it’s food.
I watched as they signalled the beggar, from their vantage points, about oncoming pedestrians — she would re arrange her posture and ask for a donation in her cup.
Here is where it got interesting. Upon success, one or another of the teens would come over, take the money and make their way to a nearby food bar, returning quickly while chewing from a paper bag. Is she your Mum? I asked. ‘No, Just my friend and we look out for her.’ She stopped herself before admitting to a stranger that the older woman looks after them too.
Soon after, on the same seat, now wet with rain, a very elderly looking Maori man (but in fact, only two years older than me), chivalrously offered me half his cardboard to sit on to protect my coat.
The out came the weary question, “Do you have a coin or two”?
I answered ‘No, sorry’, and offered to share my chocolate. He accepted, and after the most polite thanks and introductions I’ve heard anywhere, my new acquaintance Karl quietly told me his story.
How he has no home to go to. And will be sleeping rough, even though his sports bag only contained a sweatshirt and nothing to protect him from the elements. He had been on the streets 9 months, this was his first winter.
Do you want a home? I asked. No, the gangs just come and take-and-break, and throw you out, then no one will help you when (they know) your last house was wrecked.
Cannot return to Rarotonga
His (family) siblings were back in Rarotonga. When I asked if he would go there as it would be warmer and better for his health and his lungs, he said ‘nah, I can’t leave this country now, record.’
His sleeve gets pushed up to show me his story drawn in dark green prison tats. I don’t pry, I don’t want to show him any less politeness than he has shown me.
No drink and no drugs in sight: I asked him that, but he said they gave him diarrhoea, real bad, all the time,
How about food, no not much, can’t cope. I sensed an undiagnosed medical condition, but didn’t voice that. He said he was tired and would have to find some cardboard to lie on. I asked if he would like a blanket, and his face lit up with the most beautiful smile as he thanked me over and over,when I produced the sleeping bag and told him it was his. I went looking for his cardboard and returned.
As we had talked we had observed a younger Maori man, dressed American gangster-style deftly approaching motorists stopped on the lights, window washer style, but asking for cash.
He bounced away from the rejections, he bounced away from the abuse, and then he bounced over to us. “Hey lady, whatcha doing out here with my mate? Are you OK, Karl”?
Karl said, yes, reassured him, and offered introductions, explaining there were 600 of us Council people over there in SkyCity from all over the country.
Rough handling from Police
I asked if anyone else had come out to talk to them, but no one had. “You should have been here earlier if you want to learn something Jackie,” Brad said, “The cops came and took one of us, it was ugly man, they were too rough. The cops should always have a psych nurse with them, or some psych training, at least then, they could help someone.”
A passer-by handed a smiling Brad a four-pack of beer and we moved under a dry shop veranda, bums on cold pavement. Then, as the late-night pedestrians passed by, or stopped to hand over a tenner or listen a while, Brad, Karl and I debated the world.
Brad’s description of home is a place full of spite. The three of us debated our ideal political party policies and ‘fix-its’.
Immigration, refugees on the streets — “What, Syrians?” I asked stupidly.
“Nah Cantabrians,” they said, laughing. ‘There’s heaps of them up here from Christchurch cause it’s warmer in Auckland. We debated the health system, as bad as Australia, where his sister had died of cancer. Failures in the mental health system, and Brad’s energy-supplying adult ADHD became very apparent.
The laughter stops
We laughed a lot… and then we didn’t laugh, when Brad told us his 10-year-old nephew in Australia had hung himself earlier in the week, or so he said.
The day before, he said, he’d asked the Mormon minister up the road to help him skype into the funeral in Aussie, and the Minister wouldn’t help.
The underlying problem
It seemed, the lack of a physical home or housing shortage wasn’t as much a problem for these two rough-sleeping men as the lack of a memory of a home with a heart and love and human caring in it.
This is what drove them to the streets, this time, and frankly this is what keeps them on the streets, by choice throughout winter 2017. The bad memories and disappointments from way in the past and not so distant past, of home, bad memories of unrealised expectations that someone else, who was supposed to care, would care.
A long goodbye…
Karl, now wrapped up, on the wide concrete step of a roller door needed to sleep and suddenly it was time to say a difficult goodbye. We shook hands — warmly, and for a long time.
I was already chilled to the marrow, and as they wished me well, with the ‘True New Zealand’ political party we three had just invented. I turned away quickly to go to my Motel, my tears spilling at the thought of their cold night, and nights, ahead .