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Wairarapa’s invisible people


On society’s fringes, forgotten and ignored

Lisa Urbani

“Winter is coming” he said ominously, and when I saw the tents sheltering under a tree, next to a river, I shivered in the autumn chill.

He wanted me to call him the ‘old fella’ for the purposes of this story, but truth be told, he is only 55, but looks much older.

One of 14 children who grew up in a small rural town, he is polite and soft-spoken.

His alcoholic parents fed him porridge with cigarette butts and he ate it because the alternative was no breakfast.

They taught him to steal at an early age, how to break into houses and sadly he says he never had a childhood.

He is very open about the fact that his life has been a litany of despair, drugs, alcohol, sojourns in prison, and in his younger years, gang-related activities, but he says he has “regrets for my decisions.”

Now he is homeless, living in two tents, with two other homeless men, on the outskirts of Masterton, eking out an existence.

His sickness benefit of $180 a week will not cover both rent and food, so he had to choose.

He and his friends often get told to move and then have to find new shelter.

People abuse them or try to rob them.

They look out for each other, protecting each other’s belongings and have unspoken rules about not leaving a mess and not asking too many questions, each person tells their story in their own time.

‘Old Fella’s’ hang out. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

Their tent is neat and organised, and they have made a makeshift table with a plank and tyres.

The old fella says they are at the “bottom of the barrel and the only way is up”, their life is literally reduced to one day at a time.

His honesty and willingness to share his story takes courage.

“We are human, the more support we get, kai, a shower, watch some TV, the more we have a sense of something to hold on to,” the old fella says.

Masterton Foodbank co-ordinator Lyn Tankersley drew my attention to the homeless.

While discussing the constant need for donations of food, she mentioned that the foodbank was often the first indicator that someone might be homeless.

As a result of this, she and some volunteers got together and opened Shelter Masterton last year in August.

It maintains a fairly low profile, but is affiliated to a church which does not charge them any rent or expect a contribution to the power bill.

According to Lyn they have been “incredible, one of the most community-minded churches in Masterton”.

Staffed by volunteers, anyone needing their service has to be identified by a community worker, and will be issued a card that will enable them to use the shelter three times a week, to get a meal, have a shower and wash their clothes.

There is a TV and pool table so they can relax in a social setting and feel safe.

It is estimated that there about 17 people sleeping rough in Wairarapa, in the open or in a car.

It is a sad situation to be in, not many want to talk about it, or reveal their desperation to their families.

Many of the homeless also have mental health problems and addictions, and are sickness beneficiaries.

Lyn talks of the stigma of living out on the streets.

She says that they have usually never known a ‘normal’ existence, they do not have the ability to organise their lives.

“They are not choosing to do this, it’s nobody’s fault. There is not enough suitable accommodation. They need specialist accommodation, pastoral care, someone watching over them and helping them.”

‘Less and less people care’

‘Tina’ is living in a car and at first glance appears to be camping.

On closer inspection, the car windows are covered, it is filled with clothes, and she is sleeping with a knife nearby, in case she needs it.

She is 50 and during our conversation her eyes fill with tears constantly.

My heart goes out to her when she says, “years ago someone would have come over, less and less people care.”

Although she has worked as a cleaner and farmworker, she is unemployed and is on a sickness benefit, which won’t cover rent.

Her wish is to live in a caravan she owns, but it needs some work and a warrant of fitness and registration, and she doesn’t have the money for anything extra.

She has been living like this for almost five months and has become very wary of people.

A solo mum, her life has also been filled with ups and downs, and although she has family she could turn to, it’s clear that it’s not an option for her.

She bathes in the river, or where she can, but with winter approaching, she knows she needs to find a better option than a car.

It takes me by surprise when she says she most misses being able to sit down at a table when she eats.

Such a little thing that we all take for granted.

Her overriding feeling is one of “helplessness”, and she wishes that Work and Income had guidance counsellors to “give you a way out of the box”.

It is a shameful fact that all around our beautiful country, people are living like the ‘old fella’ and ‘Tina’, on the fringes of society, ignored, largely forgotten except by the few agencies that are trying to ease their plight.

It’s a rapidly growing problem in our region that cannot be overlooked, and in Lyn’s words, “people need to accept that this is the way it is and reach out in any way they can.

“If everybody loved their neighbour the world would be a better place.”

Next week: The agencies involved in trying to help the homeless.

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