Ricky Houghton and the whare that love built

Ricky Houghton and the whare that love built

Many of the children abused in state care facilities over the past 40 years have grown up lost in the system. Ricky Houghton decided to overthrow the system completely. 

He Korowai Trust CEO Ricky Houghton comes from the Pita Sharples school of style – a perfectly moussed mullet, a sharp leather jacket and a gentle smile. I meet the Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year on a sunny winter Kaitaia morning at Rab’s Kitchen, a modern eatery where the smartly dressed staff serve café classics with a Māori twist. The cafe welcomes visitors to the He Korowai Trust building, dominating a section of the main street of Kaitaia, painted in a seafoam green with a vivid orange waharoa.

Ricky at his desk in the He Korowai Trust building. Image: Leonie Hayden

The facade belies a labyrinthine interior. A café, offices for social services and emergency housing, mental health services and cabins for taking perpetrators of family violence out of the home are all on site. Sweet As Academy, a youth training school set up by the trust is just next door in an old McDonalds. But all this is just the tip of the iceberg for He Korowai. Human need is complex so it stands to reason that anyone wanting to address issues in their community would need to offer a huge range of services. People come to He Korowai in their hour of need, whatever that might be, from sourcing temporary drivers’ licenses to Restorative Justice to mortgagee sales. But what makes it so overwhelming is that this is not a government agency – it was built using Houghton’s own money and a bottomless well of love for his people.

The premises are secure, there are code protected doors and cameras everywhere, but it is a place of warmth and welcoming. Houghton has been in enough institutions to know that security matters, but shouldn’t be intimidating.

Our conversation is interrupted often with greetings and introductions – Ricky knows everyone. A steady stream of support and service workers file through, ready to start their day. I join them for karakia and a morning meeting. But once we get settled and Ricky starts to tell his story, I don’t interrupt at all. His story pours out of him, punctured by frequent giggles as well as some tears.

So there seems no better way to present his story than in his own words.


The early years

My father was an Englishman that fought with the Māori Battalion in the war and got injured quite severely, and thrown on a boat. My mother was a nurse aid from here [Kaitaia]. She was tomo to a local man. What happened was, as she was nursing my father she fell in love with him. My grandfather died in the TB epidemic of 1917. My uncles, aunties and mother were brought up with my grandmother. My grandmother said ‘go get your sister.’ So they go down to get her, and say ‘You better get back up there and marry this local man’. Mum said ‘I’ve fallen in love with this Englishman’ and they said ‘If you don’t come home with us, you can never come home’. So my mother stayed in Auckland. I was born and raised in West Auckland.

My grandfather was Timoti Popata, my great-grandfather was Ratima, and my cousin is Sir Graham Latimer. Our job within the hapū was that we were the strategic, political arm. We also recited special karakia. During the urban drift in the ‘60s, the Crown’s pepper-potting policy scattered people from the North around Māngere, West Auckland, Freeman’s Bay, and South Auckland. We weren’t allowed to live together but there were a lot of people coming to my house in West Auckland, they would turn up at all hours of the night, because people knew that my mother was raised and schooled in the old ways of reciting special karakia. Kind of a like a tinny house [he laughs] but they were looking for a spiritual fix. They would ask my mum if she could pray for them, pray for their marriages, pray for their futures, their homes. Anyway, my mother was taken away under the Tohunga Suppression Act because she couldn’t stop the people coming. Then my father had sort of a breakdown. He was a barman and he took to the alcohol in quite a big way.

When I was about 8 or 9, I used to go and play with my mates and they would say to me ‘we’re not allowed to play with you, your mother’s mad and your father’s a drunk’. So I would play with guys who were 18 or 19 instead. Then what happened was… I did things 18 and 19 year-olds do. I was the last one out of a stolen car, the first one chucked through a window. So at the age of 9 I was taken away from my parents. When the cops came and got me I remember my dad crying, but I didn’t see the harm. I couldn’t wait to hop in the police car, I jumped in it. I thought I was only going for the night. I was institutionalised and treated very, very badly by the state. When I was locked up I was given shock treatment, physically and sexually abused, it was horrible… Anyway, from those very humble beginnings I always promised myself that if I could make a difference I would. And I would fight for social justice and an improved quality of life for anybody.

Image: Leonie Hayden

In 1972 I was sitting there in a home, and I heard this voice. My cousin. I heard this voice and the matron following him down the hall saying she’s going to call the police. He said ‘Get up, you’re coming with me. Let’s go.’ He just came and got me. I didn’t know where I was at the time but I now know that it was a boy’s home in Levin called Hokio. I said to him driving home, ‘Where have yous been?’ and he said I was lost in the system, that nobody would tell the family where I was so nobody could find me. But then there was a programme called Matua Whāngai and it meant I could could come back under the care of the whānau just not back to my natural family, I had to stay with extended family. So I went to stay with Sir Graham [Latimer] and Lady Em for a couple of years.

When I came out three years later, I didn’t fit back in with my mates.

I went back to intermediate school but everybody was too far advanced. We would go to different classes, the girls would do the cooking and sewing, and the boys would do the woodwork and the metalwork. I wouldn’t go, I was too far behind. One day I was sitting on a seat and this girl sticks her head out the window and says ‘hey you want these?’ with some scones. We were 11 years old, and that’s when I met my wife.

Death and new life

I got a school exemption to leave school cos I just didn’t fit in. I was a dad at 14, had a son. I went and worked for myself. I didn’t have any academic credentials but I could work very, very hard. I had two or three jobs, I bought my house when I was 17, the house that I have today. I just got on with my life. I spent 21 years as a volunteer for Waipareira, on the board, and I learned to turn my passion for helping people into making dreams come true. My life has been very, very good.

My mother died and everyone came down to Waipareira from [Kaitaia], and they said ‘We‘ve come to get your mum’. So I came home here with my mother to bury her. I love my mother, so I stayed with my mother for about three months just in the paddock next to the cemetery. I just lived there. And I saw nothing but opportunity in Kaitaia.

During my time at Waipareira [Trust], I knew that our solutions were not going to come out of a hole in the wall, and they’re not going to come from Wellington, but nor should they. I’ve always believed that only we can free us. Nobody loves us more than us. But for sustainability, to build economic prosperity around your dream you have to develop that yourself. I also develop businesses. There’s a marae in Massey in West Auckland, Piringatahi [o Te Maungarongo], I built that marae. I built it using 12 unemployed guys. Those guys then went and built the Westgate Shopping Centre. Set up a rubbish company in West Auckland for the trust, that was $15 million.

So I whilst I don’t have any academic credentials, the fundamentals of business are very easy. You don’t need any degree for that. So I came here and the Far North is a beautiful place to live, but I don’t think anybody’s proud to be amongst the poorest in such a beautiful prosperous land. I mean if our tūpuna would’ve come back today they’d say – ‘what the hell happened? I left you the best of everything, what happened?’ I don’t know how I’d answer them but I think about that all the time.

I could tell you that, 73% of this community – of the Far North community – is Māori. Up to 85% in some pockets are on some form of benefit, 37% are single parents and the average income is $21,000. But then you balance that with the fact that there are 170,000 hectares of undeveloped and underutilised Māori land. I started this trust as an umbrella, as a mantle, to place all of the dreams and all the beliefs that I have to kickstart economic prosperity and better futures for our families.

Coming home

I had a freehold home in Auckland and I mortgaged it up. That’s how this trust was started. I mortgaged every last cent on everything I had to kickstart this trust. Sixty percent of what we do today is not funded. Even my house today is still mortgaged. At the end of the day government has very clear funding criteria, but everything I want to do sits outside that. Everything that I want to do to make a difference for families sits outside what the government requires us to do and that’s still the case today. To get into the service the criteria is very clear, you must be refused help from everyone else in the industry. We are a service of last resort, you have to prove that you’ve been refused help out there on the street. You must have no income – that could be because you’re transitioning from ACC to some form of benefit or from some benefit into ACC. Because you’ve been sprung on a benefit and it’s been stopped, or because everything’s been taken under the proceeds of crime or you’ve got no food because you’ve maxed out on all your food grants and food parcels. You must be homeless, or evicted and that includes an eviction from your family. We used to have at least one a week from mortgagee sale.

Really at the end of the day all the bank want… they don’t want the home back, they just want their money. But we’ve been able to actually stop mortgagee sales, even on the day of the auction. Once a property lawyer has issued their notice, it’s very, very hard to get the file back off the lawyers without paying a fee. We’ve had a mortgagee sale for $300! So they’re $300 behind, then they have to pay for valuation, they have to pay for a property law notice, that’s $900, they have to pay for a valuation, that’s $700, and then the marketing, that’s $3500. If they couldn’t pay the $300, there’s no way they’re gonna pay the $5000. So there’s those sorts of things. Disconnection, repossession. But all our services are free and anybody can access them.

We have compliancy, we don’t have the luxury of having the staff here tiptoe around things, so we’re very aggressive and very clear about our expectations, what we expect of the families. They can make sure that they’re very clear on what they can expect from us too.

Houghton with Sweet As Academy director and right hand woman, Toddy Shepherd. Image: Leonie Hayden

On average 190 families per year would be refused help elsewhere and come to see us. Of those 190 families, around 700 kids under the age of 17 will come and see us. Seven people will come and tell us that they want to end their lives because of feelings of being doomed, because they no longer can cope.

It’s often more than one thing. Someone might come and tell us they’ve got a power disconnection, but when you finish the assessment on average they’ll have 33 other needs, 33 other interventions that they need help with. Maybe an addiction, whether it’s a behaviour, whether it’s a partner, whether it’s a family. There’s a whole lot of reasons.

The P epidemic

I can tell you that I did a survey 18 months ago across five prisons and 34% of them told me that they’re gonna be homeless when they leave prison. Just over 10% told me that they wanted to go to prison because they couldn’t deal with their families, they couldn’t feed them. They said ‘my family is better off with me in prison and with the state caring for them because I can’t’. Now women are going to prison at a higher rate than men. 40% of the prison population means that the government’s got a problem. The government’s got a problem and I don’t know why. They haven’t changed what they’re doing so nothing’s gonna change.

Does the Far North have a P problem, like I see on the 6 o’clock news every night? There is a P problem up here but it’s about prison, it’s about prejudice, it’s about policy. A whole lot of bureaucracy. The drug problem is an end result of a socio-economic issue and a community in crisis. I asked the mayor about a month ago to declare a state of emergency on the state of housing in Northland because it’s not a housing problem, it’s a health problem now. Our kids are living in third and fourth world housing conditions. He said he can’t help, so what we’re doing is we’re managing this whole problem reactively. We’re not able to manage it proactively but we’ve created an environment where the poverty of Māori is quite a big industry.

Quite a lot of people make money off the poverty of Māori. Landlords, where our families are paying their mortgages rather than their own mortgages. The people who have very poor credit and are getting stung 17-30%. The shopping centre up here where the prices go up on benefit day.

Any person can access our free service but I pulled all our ads off the radio because I used to come here in the morning and there would be people sleeping in their cars waiting for this place to open. I’d get people from New Plymouth, mortgagee sales from Tauranga. I’ve pulled all the ads off now.

Tino rangatiratanga

At the end of the day if we’re not going to help the people, if we’re not going to do what we’re charged to do, then pull it all down and go and work for the bloody organisation up the street. That’s what I tell everybody that works here. Our mission is developing tino rangatiratanga and by that we mean assisting families to achieve their maximum potential how they see it, not how we see it. Our strategy to do that is to provide ordinary services in an extraordinary way.

In my mind all [Treaty] settlement’s doing is setting up a brown bureaucracy. In terms of the trickle down of settlement money, what these iwi groups have to do is get that money out to the people. How many of them are doing emergency housing? It’s no one. No one. How many of them are prepared to mortgage their house and their mokopuna’s house up to the maximum and put their own ass on the line? Because that’s where the rubber meets the road. You have to go and sit with them in their grief and you have to cry with them, but you know what? I’m not being arrogant when I say this, I don’t believe anybody loves the people, wants to wash them, feed them, house them and care for them the way that we want to care for them. That’s something that I believe in. Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, show me what you’re going to do.

Over the last five years I’ve got 380 people into their own home, just last year 28 substandard condemned homes in Te Haapua that are now weather tight. I’ve moved nine houses up to 50 acres of land I bought. They say ‘when you say you bought it, do you mean the government bought it?’ and I say no the trust bought it. We’ve taken on debt, we’ve mortgaged all of our assets, what you see around here is pledged, it’s owned and we’re here by the grace of god and I acknowledge that every day. But we’ve got no money, we’ve had no money. These guys have had generations of head startups and I just say to them, we’ve developed a housing model where we can move people from condemned houses, from cowsheds, from buses, from lean-tos, we can move them from 28/30sq/m homes, we can move them into 100sq/m homes, no deposit, they get meat, milk, eggs, fruit, veggies, they get free medical care, early childhood care, addiction and specialist supports, everything comes with the house. The house is $250 a week and they own it in 17 years. The site is drug, alcohol and violence free, so if you’re convicted in a court of any drug, alcohol, or violent offence, then either the offender goes, leaves the house and are not allowed back, or we put another family in there.

Now that’s the benchmark, I say to all those other groups, go out and copy that.

That’s why I say to the government, why, with this housing crisis, are you crushing five houses a week in Auckland? I’m trying desperately to bring these houses up, I’m bringing up about another six houses in a week. With these strategies, the school that we’ve built, the medical clinic we have right next door with Lance [O’Sullivan], Māoridom has the right skills, it has the appropriate processes, but we’ve been seduced into thinking white is better. For example, I can apply for a working license for somebody up in the court who’s lost their license because of a DIC that’ll cost $150. I have people go up the road [to WINZ] and pay $1800 because they believe white is better, the state is more ‘right’. They use the same form that I fill out! But whether it’s a driving license, whether it’s housing, whether it’s medical care, whether it’s economic opportunity, Māori have to work four times harder, they have to invest three times more, just to overcome what we’ve been brainwashed to believe.

What you see here is a miracle that shouldn’t be here. Those cabins down there at the end of the deck, they’re for taking men out of the home that have been involved in family violence. Instead of taking mum and the kids out of the house, I say to them, you fullas stay in your bed, you stay in your home, you’re the troublemaker, you come with me.

The trust built those cabins ourselves, we paid for those, we’ve developed them because those are the needs. They have been designed specifically around what we see at our desk every single day.

The cabins on-site are self-sufficient and don’t require council consent. As well as helping with the housing need, they’re cheap to make and Houghton is hoping building them will provide jobs to locals.

We give them an option, you can go in a police car, go to Ngawha, lose your job, or you can come with me. It’s real simple. Put a bracelet on him and then he can go to work and when the heat goes out of it we can get them together and talk about it in a couple of weeks. He hasn’t lost his job, he’s not in front of the court provided he hasn’t assaulted anybody, and we can talk through it. People have a right to ask for forgiveness, people have a right to apologise and say I’m sorry, you know? What is the other option? They go to prison, they go in front of a judge that they’ve never seen before in their life, they don’t have any respect for the court system, and it still doesn’t address the problem. We’ve got to change our attitude towards a society and a culture where everybody can rebalance things but in a way that we have control over things, rather than the system.

The Sweet As academy runs out of an old McDonald’s training young people in painting/decorating and building construction in a partnership with NorthTec. Image: Leonie Hayden

What I see when I see all these young people today, their wairua is lost. They can’t land. It’s got nowhere to land. Their umbilical cord is connected to a hole in the wall, their umbilical cord is connected to an agency. My job is to disconnect it and reconnect it back to their whānau and their whenua and their futures, and their whare. We have the right processes, we have reo, we have karakia, we have mōteatea, we have kura kaupapa, we have kohanga reo, we have whare kura, we have the Māori Community Development Act, we have the Turei Whenua Act.

As Māori we’ve got everything but we have been trained to believe that that is inferior. We have to say to each other you can have that.

I want to give families choices.

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