New Zealand's Homeless Community Talks Politics
All images: Tess McClure
elections nz

New Zealand's Homeless Community Talks Politics

With the election a few days away, homelessness is a hot political issue. We asked the people who have spent time on the streets what they think the big issues are.
September 21, 2017, 12:34am

Pete wears a scarlet hoodie on top of another jacket, zipped up to the chin. Moko lines trace his nose, curling into twin koru in the hollow under each sharp cheekbone. One of those cheekbones was crushed a few years back. His eye socket broke in five places, from an night that ended ugly. Above the other is a scar from a stabbing: someone rammed a shank into his left temple. The ink lines cross and intersect with the scars: his left eyebrow split in half from when he tripped, high on synthetics, and smacked it on the table corner.

"I just heard the bang!" he says. "When my head hit the table, I thought, fuck, someone's shot me! Some guy's taken a hit out on me." He touches the scar. "Doctor did a good job though. Always be nice to doctors. Stitched it right back together."

His name is Moko Pete*. He is rake-thin and talks at frenetic pace. He grabs my hand and presses it to his side. "Feel that! Ribs. Too skinny."

He looks up. "What are you here for again?"

It's for the election, I say. We've heard from the political commentators, the politicians, the experts, now I want to hear what someone else thinks. Yeah, this is a good place to find things out, he nods vigorously.

"Wanna find anything? You come here."

'Here' is Merge Cafe on Karangahape Road, started up by Lifewise about six years ago. They used to run a soup kitchen downtown, but didn't really like the dynamic: food just doled out, no choices for the clients. So Merge was born: the food is cheap and good, people pay for it and can pick what they like. The local business suits mix with crews of homeless kids. If you have some extra cash, you can pay it forward and buy lunch for the person behind you. There are computers in the corner so people can get online. If you have no fixed address you can get your mail delivered here. Recently, the staff have been doing advocacy training to help those struggling with WINZ.

Will Pete be voting this year? He turns and points to his back pocket—there's a register-to-vote pack stuffed in there.

Pete's an undecided. He remembers Bill English from his failed first run at Prime Minister in 2002. "Back then he was all, more police, more police, more police. That's good, that's good. More police, less crime. You oughta see me and my mates when we see the boys in blue!" He laughs.

"Yeah Bill English. Might vote for him. Not too sure though. He might be a bit too firm. Bit hardout. More police don't solve all the crimes. Can make more, sometimes."

He remembers Helen Clark was good—she didn't touch the dole. "As long as they don't stop my benefit I'll vote for them, straight up. Benefit's not easy to get. If it wasn't for that I'd have nothing."

Pete was on the streets for a long while, but he's off now, and plans to stay that way. "Got my own place and everything. Had two places. Lost the first house—they came round and swabbed the walls. P."

It wasn't him smoking it, he says, but he lost the house anyway.

"Now I got another house—twice I've passed. Every two months they come round and swab the walls. Nothing."

He doesn't want to lose this house, and if people come around he doesn't want to turn them away. Living on the streets was brutal. Sleeping in front of a shop, drunk men would sometimes come and put the boot in. A friend of his was stomped while he was sleeping outside Burger King.

"Hasn't been an easy life, hard life, hard times."

The big problem's drugs, he says. Twenty people dead this year smoking synnies. The smoke smells like horse tranquiliser, which he remembers from a stint living on a farm. Last time he smoked a bag, he walked all the way across town before he came to and realised where he was.

"Haven't been arrested for three years. Know how I did it? Got off the alcohol. Said to myself, when do you get arrested? Always when I was drunk. Got drunk, got locked up. My mother was scared of me. My father was scared of me. That's bad.

"I lost a lot eh. Scared to go back to jail now. Scared they'll beat me up."

But to be honest, he says, the longer he stays out of jail, the smaller he gets. Even if it's just a couple of months inside he comes out with a few more kilograms of muscle.

"Guess how old I am? 51. Look alright, could've looked better. Hasn't been an easy life, hard life, hard times."

He glances up, and sights a mate.

"Here! Talk to this guy!" he says. "He knows his stuff."

***

Mak isn't keen on being photographed. "No thank you," he says. "Only had my photo taken once in my life. That was a mugshot."

He's spent three life lags inside, and he counts them off. First one was seven years, then 10; last one was 24 but he got out after 22.

"I don't steal, I don't lie, I'm not dishonest," he says. "I just robbed banks." He grins, revealing several missing teeth.

For the last few years he's steered clear of that, focused on giving back to to the community, giving good advice to the younger kids who're getting into trouble. Sometimes he'll go to a mate's house and put food in their cupboards. But helping people is not always easy. Mak's been homeless for five and a half years, sleeping in a tent under an overpass. If you string up your canvas right, he says, you can create a windproof layer and some soundproofing as well. "We're Kiwis! We're inventors. Know how to solve problems."

But the politicians don't solve anything. "Never voted in my life" he says. "Waste of time. In the long run, no matter who you pick or whatever they put across, it's never gonna be that."

It might change though, if there were some younger people coming through. "I want to see the younger generation run the 21st century. Let them in there and you never know! First year they'll party. Second year they'll brainstorm. Third year they'll come up with brilliant ideas."

***

Cafe manager Manu has worked here for a year and nine months. He used to work in IT, but left all that and says he loves working at Merge.

This morning he's talking down a man who seems to be yelling about his phone company: "Yeah, I see your point," he says, "but no swearing in here please."

Mak and Pete look up briefly from the table.
"Manu's alright," Mak says.
"Yeah," Pete nods. "Yeah, he's got a good heart."

***

Wiki settles onto a bench. Her beanie is tugged low across her eyes. She pops a photobook on the table, one of those ones with pictures of wide-eyed babies posing with puppies, kittens, the occasional chicken or budgie. "It's beautiful," she says. Her voice is soft. "Got some cool animals in there. I'm leaving it here. People can look at it. I like it myself, but"— she gestures at the bundle beside her—"trying to lighten the load."

She won't be voting. "Don't touch that stuff. Lot of people don't bother."

She takes out a carefully folded sudoku, pressing her finger down the crease, and starts to fill in the boxes.

The biggest problem that needs solving, she says, is finding somewhere quiet to bed down for the night. There are plenty of spots there after five, when the shops start to close. But people will come and bother you. Security guards move you along. There are only a few where you can be quiet, be left alone. "I call those the special places," she says.

"A lot of families are going through dire straits that no-one knows about. The whole family gets under stress."

Hono has a yellow, green and red striped beanie, and a huge, gentle, embracing smile. The Herald is spread in front of him, with a cup of coffee and a ukelele.

He spent almost seven years living on the streets after losing two sons to suicide. The first passed in 2005, the second in 2013. Both were 25 when they died.

"They were good boys," he says. "I couldn't say anything bad about my sons."

Suicide is a big issue in the election. Last year, New Zealand lost more people to suicide than ever before. The politicians need to have empathy, he says. They need to listen, have a deeper understanding.

"A lot of families are going through dire straits that no-one knows about. The whole family gets under stress."

When he lost his sons and his house, the streets were kind.

"For me it was freedom. Don't worry about bills, don't worry about where you're staying. There was always something happening, to keep you occupied: someone was hungry, someone needed somewhere to stay."

"If you're living in a home and having the same problem in a home, nobody knows. It won't be seen. I found more friendship living on the streets than I did living in a home."

These days he's living at a lodge in the city. He's always taken care to vote, and this year thinks Labour has the edge. "Since my mum and dad's days, we've always been Labour supporters. I quite liked the policies they had back then. National was always running us down," he says.

He wants to see more women running the country, and thinks they do a better job. "They're a bit more onto it. Every time we have a lady in there their policies come through. But the guys? The men like the power. The ladies are willing to listen, take advice and put it into actually happening."

"The men can sit down and be quiet for once, that's my opinion. You had your chance, we want a bit more healing now. Maybe the ladies can heal what the guys couldn't."

***

The next morning, it's quiet at Merge.

One man nods hello. "Barely anyone here today," he says. There's a girl in pink, with a black eye blooming purple. Her face is starting to swell.

A woman in a large black parka stops at the table. Puts down her cigarette filters, lifts her mug and downs the cup of of instant coffee in a single go. She puts down the cup and sits. No, she doesn't want to talk politics. No she doesn't have an opinion on the election. There is a raw-looking cut beneath her eye.
Then, suddenly, she is weeping, talking of kids taken by CYF, babies kicked and broken by abusive men. Life has been hard.

"Everything I'm doing, I do for my kids," she says. She's been saving up. It will be their inheritance. "I want them to be treated like gold," she says.

A moment later, the clouds lift a little. She has got a brand new pack of cards, and wants a game. We play last card. She thrashes me four times in a row.

***

"I grew up in an era that was a lot different," Jeff says. "Baby boomers and that. Back then, people like me could get jobs, with no schooling, no qualifications."

Jeff is wearing a black jacket, black jeans, tattoos on his knuckles. He used to do factory work, "but I was off the rails right from the word go," he says.

"Spent a lot of time in prison, drugs, broken home, that sort of thing. Didn't really have a positive outlook on life, live for the day don't care about tomorrow. But then I got sick of going to jail, had to try and unravel all that. It was like an addiction. But I've always been on the fringes of society."

He's been watching the politicians, but won't be voting. "Never voted in my life. Don't believe in it. Any major decision will just happen anyway."

This year, he thinks Jacinda Ardern is a shoo-in. New Zealanders have been starving for a charismatic personality, he tells me. "The others have the personality of a goldfish."

Jeff reckons immigration might be the biggest problem: cheap labour coming in and take the bottom rung jobs.

"These days the ones that were available to someone like me, with criminal convictions and no education, those jobs are taken."

"If you tick all the boxes you're ok. But you know, every country has people who don't tick the boxes."

"Here's the problem," he leans in. "Every creature has the right to accommodation. The bird has a nest, bee has a hive, rabbit has a burrow. But they've taken the right of every living being and turned it into an inaccessible commodity."

He laughs: "Even a flea has a dog! Every creature has a place to live, apart from us."

Follow Tess on Twitter

*Some details have been removed from a previous version of this article to protect the privacy of the interviewee.

READ MORE: Here's What Our Most Powerful Politicians Have Done About Homelessness