River remembers the night her best mate nearly died. She and a group of friends were shooting heroin in a house in Melbourne, as they usually did.
River didn’t even notice her friend had collapsed until she felt vomit on her.
After that everything moved in slow motion—River remembers calling the ambulance, trying to do CPR while another friend tried to hide syringes. From the corner of her eye River saw the door burst from its hinges and ambulance officers barge in. They stabbed a needle filled with adrenaline into the dying girl’s chest.
In the next instant, River’s best friend was back on her feet. River was so shocked she punched her mate in the face. “You were fucking dead!”
The ambulance officers made sure everyone was okay, and then they left. In the wake of this near-death experience, in that living room somewhere in Melbourne, the friends re-grouped and decided, well, they’d better shoot up again.
In a McDonald’s in central Christchurch, River, 29, shakes her head. “That’s how fucked up addiction is.”
She lived 45 minutes from Melbourne, but the city was where the drugs and her friends were. Train stations stayed open until three in the morning so she’d sleep there, in the warmth. When the stations shut for an hour, she would move to a coffee shop.
The only things that mattered were drugs, underwear and socks. “If you had new underwear and socks, you felt like you were alive—whoa, this is socks!” She laughs. “Even now, I’ve got a house and I’m like yeah, it’s new socks!”
If you have a drug addiction that’s put you on the streets, she says, you’re not getting off the streets until you’re off the drugs. For River, it was her drug and alcohol worker, Esther, who saved her life. She had worked with River since she was a student and River was just 15.
River had just spent her latest benefit payments on drugs. Esther picked her up and drove her to the airport. River was livid, but to calm her down, Esther let her shoot up in the car. She then dropped her at the airport and personally paid for her flight back to her hometown of Christchurch.
Truth be told, it’s a lot easier to be homeless in Melbourne than in Christchurch. River shakes her head again: “the Melbourne streeties wouldn’t be able to hack it here, they’d freeze”.
That’s what got her into setting up Street Wise in Christchurch four months ago—she’d had enough of seeing people living on the city streets. “I just want them to be fucking homed,” River says. She is visibly distressed as she explains Christchurch’s homeless situation. “Don’t tell me to stop working so hard when there’s people fucking dying... and people who don’t understand that it’s a crisis—that fucks me off.”
That it is a crisis is evident in the numbers of people who show up for a Street Wise feed. One Sunday afternoon in August, Street Wise set up gazebos on Hampshire Street in Aranui to give out hot food, drinks, and clothes. The food was gone in 23 minutes.
Street Wise’s point of difference is that it doesn’t just feed people. The aim is to provide connection to support and rehabilitation services, such as Work and Income and Odyssey House. On top of that, it’s about providing a sense of community.
At another feed, a member of what River fondly refers to as the “street whānau” showed up suicidal. But after two hours with the Street Wise crew he had completely changed. River almost laughs. “It’s not like we did anything, it was just us being there. And fun. Fun and laughter can actually solve shit.”
From nine to five, life is pretty good for a homeless person. But after five is when the big dramas start, and that’s the part people don’t see. River’s hands fall to her sides. “You do everything you can to put these guys’ safety first, but then a system break down or the system isn’t helping and that’s heart-breaking.”
Running Street Wise is a constant balancing act. River, her fiancée Sam, and the rest of the team want the street whānau to trust them with their problems, but they don’t want to cross the boundary into friendship, where they could potentially be put in vulnerable positions.
River knows the struggle. “I’ve been there, I know the addiction, I know the lies and the manipulation. I know the ingredients to get people off the street, and I know the ingredients that put them there as well… I’m not gonna lie, there’s some people out there doing really cool work… but we’re real, we’re totally real.”
Next to River, Sam sips her McDonalds hot chocolate and agrees not many other agencies are like Street Wise. “We have personality, we’re willing to sit with them and have a coffee.”
River’s mum Keri is just pleased her daughter has found her passion in life. River is her only child, and with that comes a special bond. There’s a twinkle in Keri’s eye as she sits on her purple couch and shows off photos of River’s childhood. “She was the most placid baby you’ve ever met.”
River would sob herself to sleep if anyone raised their voice at her, and would come home without her mother’s hand-knitted cardigans because she had given them to someone in need. When Keri discovered River’s drug addiction at 18, it was a huge shock. “She was a witch,” Keri says. “She turned from this loving person—I didn’t know who she was.”
Keri is now River’s most fierce supporter. She is the self-proclaimed lackey at every Street Wise event, cooking up a batch of sausage curry at a moment’s notice, buttering slices of bread, dishing up food. When River first started Street Wise, she constantly visited her mum for advice. Nowadays, River’s visits are less frequent, so Keri reckons she must be doing okay.
When River was addicted to heroin, she stopped at nothing to get her fix. “If I want that I’m gonna get it, you can’t fucking stop me.”
But now this attitude is channeled into Street Wise: most recently, petitioning the council for a van so she can take the street whānau to Work and Income. This sense of determination is what Sam loves most about River. “River is a very passionate person… she would never do something half-arsed.”
At first, River was afraid of sharing her past, wary of the judgement. But after telling her story at one of her events, people started asking questions, about things like her rehabilitation journey.
And she realised she was helping save lives, the lives of people like her best mate, who overdosed in a living room in Melbourne all those years ago.