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‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this’: starting life from scratch in industrial West Auckland

As summer drops away with the leaves a family in West Auckland prepares to endure another winter in substandard government housing, in a place that feels far from a home. Don Rowe visits and hears their story. 

“We drove past where our old house was the other day and they’ve built a new one. My son was really excited, he said, ‘mum can we go home now?’ But it’s not our home anymore.”

Home now sits in a half-empty cul de sac, a single story affair in a block of flats in industrial West Auckland, sandwiched between the mangroves and Great North Road. There are two-storey homes on the street, right outside the front door, but they’re empty, boarded up and condemned. Their facades, cheap pink stucco, conceal rotten interiors with soaked and mouldy timber. Their lawns – the only ones on the street – lie behind chain link fences. The kids around here play on the road.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“We had a plan,” says Bea, matriarch and mother to three. “We had a plan. By now we were both going to have jobs, a car. I wanted to start my own business. But we lost everything in the fire.”

It was a Sunday afternoon last August, the family were relaxing at home. Then Bea caught a whiff of smoke and was wrenched back in time, to when she was 16, and her home burned to the ground as the family watched from the street.

“I knew that smell straight away. I knew exactly what was happening. I thought, ‘oh no, not again.'”

In the garage, the only space available for drying clothes, the family had resorted to using a BBQ to heat the room. But an open door, a gust of wind, an act of God, and the washing caught fire. As the clothes twisted and burned, Bea threw herself at the flames.

“They say mind over matter, and it’s true, I almost put it out with my hands, slapping the BBQ, and I didn’t feel anything, but then a bed base caught fire and the smoke was just too much.”

The family rushed outside, oldest daughter Esther in her school uniform, and watched the blaze. There was plenty of fuel.

“I had about twenty of those big plastic boxes you get from the warehouse, full of books, baby clothes, photos, all the things I was saving for when my kids have kids. Everything burned – even pictures of me and Peter when we were skinny.”

Peter’s bookwork, necessary for the completion of his carving course at Te Wananga, was lost too, as were his laptop and hard drives. Esther’s clothes were smoke damaged beyond repair, even after Bea washed them, and washed them, and washed them.

‘What was that like, not having any of your clothes?” I ask.

She turns away with a twitch of the mouth, and I drop the subject. Why press the issue? How can a 13-year-old articulate the feeling of watching their home burn, of losing everything but their school uniform – the clothing most kids want the least. What can she do to convey a sense of what it’s like to share a bed with her two little brothers, night after night, on top of everything else a girl at 13 goes through?

“We were in a motel for a week,” Peter says. “We were looking for a new place straight away because we thought ‘this isn’t going to last’. Winz put us up, but we knew it wouldn’t last. Then they offered us a couple places and said choose one. We didn’t have any time, and we ended up here, ages away from our old place.”

With their home went their village. Before the fire, the kids watched out for one another at a local park. Other parents could look out their window and keep an eye on the neighborhood brood while mum and dad studied out South. Childcare was called playing with your friends.

“The kids looked after each other back then,” Peter says. “But the houses round here don’t let their kids out. I dunno why.”

“I think it’s cause one of those places was involved with meth,” says Bea, pointing in the direction of another block of flats.

“Have you made new friends around here?” I ask Esther.

“No.”

“Do you miss your old friends?”

“Yes.”

“What do you like doing for fun now?”

“Nothing.”

But that’s not strictly true. Esther loves animals, and has been nursing a litter of stray kittens who live under a bush across the road. Her mum calls her the animal whisperer and says she’s going to be a vet. She loves books, and is an exceptional netball player – her team recently won a regional tournament, beating out more than 100 other teams. She’s also gifted leader – her mum says she’s missed back at the park.

“I’ve talked to some of the parents from our old street. The kids don’t play at the park anymore. Essy was their leader but now she’s gone.”

Photo: Kaycie O’Connor

She’s in high school now and the netball season is approaching. She’ll need shoes, a uniform, transport. And the cold brings other concerns. In early autumn, Peter is recovering from bronchitis. In winter things will get worse. The family need linen, blankets and warm clothing. Bea needs new shoes herself, but backpacks are expensive now – “$20 even at the Chinese shop” – and the laptop bag Esther carries to school won’t last forever. It’s one or the other. The boys also need socks and shoes. A late afternoon in March, it’s already cold, and it’s dark in the shadows of a leaky home.

“At our old place we’d just got a heat pump,” Peter says. “Shucks, it was awesome. The kids were never cold. But now we have to run that little heater non-stop, and it takes a couple of hours before the house is warm.”

“We have to use it, otherwise it’s too cold,” adds Bea. “But then we see the power bill. At night we pull all the mattresses into the lounge and sleep in here by the heater.”

Everyone?

“Everyone.”

The family still have goals. Peter has been offered a teaching position on completion of his studies next year, and Bea holds out hope she’ll one day be able to start her business. Te Kahu, their second child, started a new school this month, and after my visit the family attend an open fun night at the community centre. They’re good people dealt a bad hand, but they’re still in the game, and they’re together.

“We’ve still got each other, but it’s hard. Shucks, it’s pretty hard.”


Esther and Te Kahu are both currently looking for sponsors through the Variety Kiwi Kid Sponsorship, which provides items such as bedding, clothing and other essentials to kids in need for as little as $1.50 a day. Click here to sponsor one of 700 Kiwi kids – providing warmth, inclusion and the start to life that ever child deserves.

This post is part of Rent Week, our week-long series about why the experience of renting a home in NZ is so terrible, and whether anything can be done to fix it. Read the entire series here.


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