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A convo about homelessness

Moira Lawler, Lifewise CEO, with Honotana, team member of the Merge Community.


The ever-growing problem that has become a fixture of inner city Auckland in recent years, along with rising rates in many other regions throughout our country. At the best of times, homelessness is difficult to combat. At the worst of times, the simple act of starting a conversation about homelessness can prove just as difficult.

But we need to talk about it, and when we do, focus on what is within our power to change. Too often we find ourselves fixated on the causes and magnitude of the problem at hand. And I could talk about the problem all day. It’s important we don’t neglect to reflect on where we’ve been and what’s led up to this point – but it’s also important we look to solutions, and what we can do, because actions always, always trump words.

Speaking of words, there’s just one thing I’d like to address…

The danger of our own perceptions

When you read the first word of this article – homelessness – what came to mind? Be honest, and you might be surprised at your own answer. I’m just being real here, because if we’re talking assumptions, I’ll be the first to put my hand up and plead guilty as charged.

We find it so easy to put people in boxes. There’s us, and there’s them. It no longer takes me by surprise how quick we are to judge the circumstances, character and nature of somebody we have never even met. How we automatically assume that people are the sum total of what we can see and understand about their lives. We are so limited at the level of our own understanding, and yet, we grant ourselves daily a renewed right to do it all again.

I’ve heard the comments people make when they talk about homelessness. Call it the power of public perception. The power of a rhetoric, a message, an idea to become the dominant way of thinking – as if you and I could guarantee with any shred of confidence that we will never find ourselves in that situation.

The reality is any of us could end up homeless one day. And I’m not saying this to scare you. I’m saying it so we might remember homelessness is a circumstance, not an identity, and that this group of people are not the “other” – they are us. We are them. And if we’re going to be acting like the world changers we’ve been built up to be, we’d better begin right here at home – with our perceptions, our barriers, and our beliefs. “They’re addicted to drugs and alcohol. It’s their own fault.”

“It’s their choice. If they wanted a change in circumstances, they could do that.”

“They’re just not trying hard enough.”

Sentiments like these are what Lifewise chief executive Moira Lawler hears all too often. She says we’ve got to learn to dig deeper than what we see at a surface level.

“A common misconception about homelessness is that it is a choice. And, admittedly, if you go up to someone who has been sleeping rough for a while they will say it is their choice. But if you try and understand the reasons behind that choice, you’ll start to see a clearer picture.

“A young person may have chosen to leave an unsafe home environment, or someone else may have chosen to escape an abusive relationship, perhaps someone has chosen not to engage with any homelessness services because they, too, like many of us, feel too proud to do so. So to equate homelessness with just a matter of choice is too simplistic.”

In a nutshell

Statistics New Zealand defines homelessness as “living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing”.

Today, approximately 40,000 New Zealanders fit that definition, according to a Yale University study. Some have been homeless for decades. That time in anybody’s life can be a constant battle for survival, says Lawler.

And while we know it’s a problem that won’t disappear anytime soon, there is some change happening at government and regional levels, and that’s good news.

• Auckland’s first regionwide census count of the homeless population will take place on Monday 17 September, including a survey, tally and 750 volunteers.

• Labour announced an investment of $100 million from its May budget to combat homelessness – $37 million toward provision of immediate, short-term housing, and $63 million to provide permanent housing for those experiencing chronic homelessness.

• Auckland City Mission will soon be the recipients of extra space being added to their HomeGround development, to assist the outreach’s detoxification service for those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.

Everyone’s got a story

Allow me to introduce you to a wonderful woman by the name of Kat’z.

For Kat’z, home wasn’t a safe place to be, so at a young age she took a chance and bravely left. With nowhere to go and little support, it wasn’t until Kat’z found Lifewise that she felt supported, empowered and part of a community dedicated to providing a way out. It was a safe space.

“I ran away from home because the streets felt safer,” she says. “But life on the streets is also hard – finding a dry place to sleep, a comfortable place to sleep where you did not get looked at; and not knowing where your next feed is.

“Lifewise walked alongside me to get off the streets. Not having my own space, knowing what the streets are like, knowing all the predators out there, knowing it’s hard being a woman… I didn’t wanna be a victim anymore.

“With Lifewise, I was able to build my path to my own recovery, maintain my behaviour, my addictions, and my attitude. I learned how to work with different people – we all may be streeties, we might fit the same criteria, but none of us are the same. So I learned how to use the differences and turn them into strengths… I work with the homeless, my people, my family, because I know the hurt, the mamae [pain].”

Today, Kat’z is a dedicated member of Merge Community Peer Support Team. Once trapped by her circumstances, Kat’z now confidently gets alongside dozens of Aucklanders every week, providing peer-to-peer drop-in support at Merge Café. She’s providing hope, strength and dignity as she helps people in the homeless community to build capacity and rise above.

To merge or to dine?

Both. The answer is always both.

At Merge Café, the goal – you guessed it – is to merge. To bring people together from all walks of life to dine, share conversation, connect and ultimately break down the stigma that keeps some of the community’s most marginalised in a position of disempowerment and hopelessness.

It’s the place to go to eat well, feel good and do good, all at the same time.

This unique cafe based at 453 Karangahape Road was once known as the Airedale Community Centre – a soup kitchen where over 40,000 meals a year had been served to Auckland’s homeless community since 1885.

But over time, Lifewise re-evaluated its approach amidst a growing body of evidence supporting the notion the soup kitchen was maintaining rather than combatting the issue of homelessness, and changed the soup kitchen into Merge Café in late 2010. Nowadays, the thriving café provides around 20,000 low-cost meals a year, in an environment free of stigma or judgement where access to Lifewise’s services is made easy. What’s better, every dollar spent at Merge Café goes towards support for people experiencing homelessness.

For students, it’s got a lot to offer. Need internet to study? Connect to the free Wi-Fi. Looking for a job or somewhere to stay? Find and post on their community noticeboard. Keen to check out a new book or magazine? Merge has a whole variety in store, and you can even join the Merge Café Book Club!

Bruce Stone, chief executive of the Airedale Property Trust, which partners with Lifewise, says the attempt to normalise people’s lives through the café initiative is a healthier approach to combatting homelessness than the previous, old-style charity model.

“You’ve got to ask – what is Merge Café achieving? Is it helping the people that are there? That doesn’t necessarily need to be homeless people. You will see older people there getting coffee who wouldn’t normally at the other places [coffee shops] or the soup kitchen. You see suits in there that are rubbing shoulders with each other and with marginalised people.

“That’s where I think the big challenge is. There’s more respect, and it’s more in line with reality. It’s not hiding homelessness, and it’s not advertising homelessness; it’s just treating people with respect.”

There are some moments in life you never forget. They’re the ones that break your heart, challenge your thinking and spur you on toward action – all at once.

I had one of those moments in November last year, as I was told about an Auckland mother who worked three jobs, was responsible for six kids (some of which weren’t her own), and in an article about her state of homelessness, was described as ‘not doing enough’.

Sometimes our perceptions of people are so far from the truth it’s hard to fathom how we even got to that point. If you reading this achieves anything, I hope it challenges you on the perceptions you hold. I hope it encourages you to take action, knowing that however small your move might be, there’s an opportunity on the other side of your decision that could change somebody’s life.

This isn’t the end of a conversation. This is the beginning of a conversation, and one I hope you’ll be brave enough to continue with your mates, family, and the people you do life with.

Let’s talk.

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