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Mayor breaks bread with homeless at Methodist Mission

If you walked from Mt Eden to Auckland’s city centre you’d pass about 30 people living on the streets. One in five of them is less than 20 years old.

Methodist Mission Northern is the main support service for Auckland’s homeless and the Mission is assisting Auckland City Council develop a strategy to develop a strategy on homelessness. There are no quick solutions because the underlying issues are complex – mental health, addiction, abuse and neglect. But the city council wants to assist organisations working as agents for change among homeless people.

In June Auckland mayor Hon. Dick Hubbard visited the Methodist Mission to share a meal and chat with the Mission’s clients. He reinforced the reason for the visit: "Regardless of their background or situation, every Aucklander is equally important and has the same right to have their voice heard, and needs addressed."

Councillor Cathy Casey accompanied the mayor and she describes the experience. Cathy says something magical happened when she and other councillors broke bread with the homeless people of Auckland. It was a signal that this new council cares about all of its citizens. “We met with them on their terms, on their turf and ate their kai.”

The visit afforded councillors a first-hand opportunity to learn more about the lives of some of the poorest people in the city. In his welcome, the kaumatua described how the Mission has provided care to the homeless in Auckland for 150 years. It offers essential daily services like meals, clothing, food parcels and access to hot showers and toilets. He said for councillors to attend a meal with clients was an historical occasion.

In his short address, the mayor stressed the focus of the new council was people and the homeless people of Auckland were as important to the council as the ratepayers of Remuera. There were nods of approval and smiles from the 100 people waiting to eat. The age of the audience covered the whole spectrum from early teens to mid 80s. The majority were Maori.

Cathy says as guests, the councillors were asked to queue jump. “That made me feel awful because I didn’t actually need the food, the patrons who were waiting did.

“We picked up our plastic plate already piled high with roast, gravy, potatoes and peas, along with our bowl of ice cream and custard. Councillors scattered throughout the dining room. As the clients got their meals, they filled in the spaces at the tables.

“I learned Monday is normally stew day. Since the council was paying, they’d moved the Sunday roast meal. Great for us, but my mate across the table had no teeth. He’d walked all the way in from Richmond Road to have stew and had to settle for three jam sandwiches.

“There was no shortage of conversation. The man next to me wanted to know who I was. I said I was a councillor and he asked, ‘Who do you counsel?’ It’s hard to relate what a city councillor does to a homeless person’s perspective.”

The mayor found himself surrounded by younger people keen to tell him what life for the homeless in Auckland is like. Around the room councillors were regaled with stories of the streets. Sad tales of lives blighted by drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Hopeful tales of drying out and finding God. Happy tales of lives turning around.

Quite a few of the people present said respect is an issue. My mate walked in from Richmond Road because he doesn’t like to scrounge money for public transport. Another said he hated asking for help. The daily routines for homeless people sleeping rough revolve around mealtimes and finding a decent ‘possie’ for sleeping. Their sleeping sites are weather dependent.

There were very few grumbles, Cathy says. One complaint was our failure to recognise that homeless people fall in love and have relationships. Often accommodation is allocated to single homeless people separated by gender.

“I walked back with the mayor to the Civic Building and all the way ‘streeties’ waved and called out greetings. The mayor and council accorded respect to people on the streets and they were responding in kind. I hope we have in some small way made up for the actions of the last council which viewed street people simply as a problem to be shifted out of the CBD. I am proud to be part of a new council that treats all of its citizens with respect.”