Photo: Ira Mata Ira Tangata

A night out in Auckland, counting the homeless

Late on Monday night saw an unprecedented, large-scale ‘point in time’ census of Auckland’s homeless population, ‘Ira Mata, Ira Tangata’. Toby Manhire went out counting, together with about 700 others.

Think about it like this, said Wilf Holt: “You’re going to be visiting people in their bedrooms.”

He said: “If tomorrow night someone flashes a torch in your eyes when you’re sleeping or kicks you or makes loud noises as they come through the window, you’re going to get aggrieved.”

It was just after 8pm on Monday and Holt was setting the scene for a couple of hundred volunteers about to head out and count Auckland people whose bedrooms are doorways or tents or cars. We’d been split into groups of three, the team leaders holding maps printed on A4 sheets, the borders of our allocated areas scrawled in ballpoint pen. We sat at round tables underneath the North Stand of Eden Park, in the Hall of Legends. The legends, floor-to-ceiling photographs of rugby heroes, gazed perplexed at the rabble of high-vis and beanies emblazoned with the words Ira Mata, Ira Tangata.

“Do no harm,” said Holt, stressing every syllable. “Maintain confidentiality. Treat people with respect and dignity. Dignity to those you’re counting, and dignity to yourself. There is no dignity if you’re spending your time on Facebook, telling everyone what you’re doing. There is no dignity in that.”

Guard against assumptions, he said. “It doesn’t go without saying that everyone who lives on the street looks like a streetie. There are a few streeties out there tonight who are better dressed than you lot.”

Wilf Holt early on Monday evening. Photo: RNZ / Rowan Quinn

Holt had been introduced by the Auckland City Missioner, Chris Farrelly, as “the grandfather of street counts in Auckland”. Since 2004 Holt has led smaller “point in time” tallies focused on a three-kilometre radius of the Sky Tower. But this was the first attempt to cover the wider city. Our Eden Park base was just one of eight, with almost 700 volunteers spread from Pukekohe to Warkworth.

In place of the clipboards were apps, downloaded to volunteers’ phones, serving up questions to ascertain whether the person you might meet is homeless, and 20 more about their circumstances, if they were happy to talk. We had supermarket vouchers to hand out, and piles of beanies.

“We call this a street count. But really it’s about far more than that,” said Farrelly. It wasn’t some “academic exercise”, but about collecting information and using that information to better assign support. “This will help the community take another step forward to help end homelessness.”

He said: “It would be fair to say that many people in our community are very nervous about this count. ‘What does it mean for me? Am I going to be identified? What are these people going to do?’ And we have assured the homeless community of Auckland that the people that are going out tonight – that is you – are going with incredible sensitivity and with care and respect.”

What was the biggest danger, asked one high-vizzer.  “The biggest danger is probably yourself, making silly decisions,” said Holt. And, deadpan: “If a team leader falls off a cliff, obviously someone is going to have to step up and take over.”

Ira Mata, Ira Tangata merch, available one night only (image: Toby Manhire)

We set off up Mount Eden, around local parks, main streets, the station. Benjamin and Camila and I had drawn the lot of one of the wealthiest swatches of Auckland, bordered by bits of Mt Eden, New North and Dominion roads, and we began at the volcano. Circling the maunga at about 9.30pm there were joggers and dog-walkers but no one sleeping rough.

Benjamin knows the area pretty well. Wrapped in a busy beard and Doc Martens and puffing on a vape, he pointed out halfway houses, spots he’d seen people sleeping rough in the past, another place where someone is squatting. Benjamin is studying to be a social worker, supporting himself by putting in 20-or-so hours a week as an Uber Eats driver. He was homeless for six weeks when he was 21, he said, walking through Mt Eden Station, the platform sparkling after a layer of rain. He camped down in someone’s shed for six weeks. “It wasn’t long. I kind of feel bad even saying it. For some people it’s years.”

Camila is a ceramic artist with blue hair. Turns out she works at Crave, the cafe around the corner from The Spinoff in Morningside. Auckland is a far cry from home, on the fringes of Rio De Janiero. The scale of squalor and homelessness there is something else. One time she saw a woman sleeping rough in the well-to-do Ipanema Beach neighbourhood shovelled away by the police. “They kicked her and kicked her and put her in the car and dropped her at Copacabana.”

But Auckland had discernibly got worse, Camila said as we plodded through Evendale Park. In the six years since she moved from Brazil, “you can see it… so many homeless people now on Queen Street.” Even outside the central city, homeless populations were growing. She saw some of them every day at Crave, which offers a free coffee a day to those who can’t afford to pay. There are six or seven regulars, who nurse a cup most days. “They’re very nice people. There is one man, he looks like a stereotype of a homeless person, and he speaks like an English lord.”

Benjamin and Camila on Mt Eden (image: Toby Manhire)

Homelessness in Auckland came into sharp focus midway through 2016, when reports on Three’s The Nation and RNZ’s Insight told the story of the “hidden homeless” living in cars on the edges of parks. The presence of beggars – some homeless, some not – in central Auckland grew observably more concentrated by the month. The work of Te Puea marae in providing temporary housing became emblematic not just of the problem, but the perception that officialdom had abdicated its responsibility to shelter the most vulnerable.

As the issue of homelessness, and its part in a wider housing crisis, came out of the shadows and into the political floodlights, it was clear that the data was muddy. The City Mission had completed its counts of central Auckland, but that was limited in scope. There was some census data, but everyone knew it wasn’t close to comprensive. And there was an awful lot of anecdote. The best numbers available, drawn from an Otago University study on stability, were routinely misreported, conflating homelessness with sleeping rough.

Ira Mata, Ira Tangata: Auckland’s Homeless Count offered a real chance to capture the size of the issue. It’s not precise. Plenty of homeless people will have been missed; if you were determined to camp out on the slopes of Mt Eden you could probably do so undetected by amateur sleuths like me, Camila and Benjamin. But the project, organised by the Housing First collective of five community organisations, backed by Auckland Council, would be better than anything we had already – and something that could provide both a model for other parts of the country and a basis to measure change over time.

Not everyone was into it, though. On the morning of the count, the great-uncle of New Zealand talkback Leighton Smith lambasted Mayor Phil Goff’s participation as “an exercise in exhibitionism”. He said of the homeless: “You don’t have to know how many precisely, you just have to know that they’re there.”

“It’s really sad that he makes a comment like that,” said Goff when I put it to him the next day.

“It’s an opportunity to try to quantify the issue, to get a sense of what it is like across those areas. The number gives us a more accurate idea of the scale of the problem rather than speculation.”

Homelessness was a “mark of shame” for Auckland, said the mayor.  “I’ve always regarded it as a fundamental right to have a warm and safe home. It’s about how we can work to make sure every New Zealander can have the opportunity to have a proper home.”

Benjamin and Camila and I covered a lot of terrain, poking our noses through acres of car parks sitting empty surrounded by low-rise, semi-industrial office buildings in one of Auckland’s richest suburbs – an emptiness that fills another chapter in Auckland’s horror housing story. Across three hours we hardly had cause to fire up our apps, counting only one homeless person, asleep in a vehicle. We waved our arms plaintively but, as directed, we didn’t knock or shout. Who wants some stranger banging on their bedroom window at 11pm?

On a slip road around the back of Mt Eden Prison we spoke to a young man, shuffling along the footpath in socks. He didn’t want to talk, and we didn’t push it. Shortly after we’d pointed our torches around a corner park, a car pulled up alongside us, and the woman in the passenger seat wound down the window.

“Are you guys doing that homeless count?”

“Yup, we are.”

“How do you guys know that they don’t want to be left alone.”

“The idea is you start by asking if they’re happy to talk and if they are you go through those questions.”

A pause. “It’s still an invasion of privacy.”

“If people want to be left alone, that’s all good, we’ll leave them alone. If they don’t want to talk we’ll leave them alone.”

The car reversed closer.

“OK.”

Wilf Holt briefs map-clutching volunteers at Eden Park. Photo: Toby Manhire

Back at the Hall of Legends, shortly before midnight, we returned our vests and relayed the tally: one! Any dramas, I asked. “Calm as!” said the City Mission’s Chris Farrelly. “No dramas. Far as I know!”

That woman in the car, did she have a point about privacy? It would be understandable, said Farrelly, if people on the street, homeless or not, were suspicious about all these orange vests traipsing the streets. You couldn’t build trust in a night.

In the central city, the Mission has spent years working to establish confidence with the homeless community. “We’ve got an outreach in the mornings. Every morning we go out about six o’clock. Every day. There’s a bit of trust established.”

That was something they hoped to replicate on a wider scale. It’s not an exact science. It’s a start. “We’ve just got to work with people. So that’s the next step for us. To get a deeper dive.”

And if there were people living homeless on the fringes of Mt Eden, there’s every chance we wouldn’t have seen them.

“About 25% of Auckland streeties are women now. Women sleeping rough. Sleeping in really discrete places. Quite hidden. We’re kind of privileged to know where they do hang out. They’re often in groups. Four women together, for example.”

How many homeless people were talked to or tallied over those three hours on Monday night? The group reporting back before us had counted seven. The group after, five. The 2016 City Mission count in the central city noted 177. The initial results of this week’s count will be announced on World Homeless Day, October 10.

Mayor Goff’s group went out in Māngere Central. They tallied five homeless people. One was bedded down alongside a 24-hour McDonald’s.

In response to the question about whether he felt safe, he replied yes, said Goff, “and then he said, ‘I’ve just come out of hospital – someone stabbed me the other day.’

“It clearly isn’t safe. If you’re out here sleeping rough, especially in winter, you’re going to end up in hospital and you’re going to die young. We’ve got an obligation to do what we can.”


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