Following a flurry of photo opportunities and new funding announcements, Jacinda Ardern ditched her travelling contingent of media for a more personal visit with those helping the worst affected by this 110-day lockdown.
It’s rubbish day in Clendon, and the stench of soon-to-be collected bins provides a pungent backdrop for those arriving at The Pride Project community house on a muggy Wednesday afternoon to host a special visitor.
That visitor is prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who’s making a low-key tour of the centre’s facilities after a busy morning of funding announcements. As a seasoned pro at these whistle-stop meet-and-greets, Ardern bounds out of the 12-seater Mercedes minivan, greeting with a warm masked smile the dozen or so centre staff and volunteers – as well as her Labour colleague and local electorate MP Arena Williams, who, Ardern notes, is wearing the same pair of ballet flats as her.
She is accompanied by just the one staff member, a bevy of diplomatic protection service officers and a couple of police cars, but the usual horde of cameramen and smartly dressed journalists aren’t along for the ride on this occasion.
An ongoing criticism of the government’s Covid response has been the slow vaccine rollout in South Auckland, and the apparent reluctance of Ministry of Health officials to trust local organisations. But of late, the government has made a range of funding promises aimed at rectifying this, including a $12m boost revealed yesterday for the region’s food banks and community food organisations. The Pride Project charitable trust is the kind of organisation that will benefit from this latest tranche of support.
Founder Melissa Moore says demand for her team’s support services has soared over lockdown. “We were probably doing about 100 food parcels a day, delivering to letterboxes in PPE gear. And we’ve seen at least triple the amount of referrals for welfare and wellbeing checks, so we’ve been incredibly busy,” Moore explains before Ardern’s arrival.
Supporting families with overcrowding, rent and power arrears, accessing healthcare or work and income entitlements and running a $5-a-day lawn mower rental service are just a few of the services described in detail to Ardern.
After chatting with the centre’s staff, as the sole representative of the fourth estate I’m able to ask Ardern a limited number of questions relating to her visit. When asked why, of all the places she could visit, she’s chosen a converted state house that runs a food bank and social service in Manurewa, Ardern says nothing beats seeing those “working on the ground” in person.
“I’ve done my best to try and stay connected from a distance but it’s not the same,” she says, clearly in her element as she greets the centre’s team of volunteers and even offers to donate Neve’s baby clothes to the op shop.
“It is a chance to come and hear how things have been on the ground but also to know what our next steps are and how they’re shaping up. Arena [Williams, Manurewa MP] has rightly pointed out the work that is being done here. And particularly because of the role they’re playing as connectors, that’s what we’re looking to scale up.”
Moore explains the discretion afforded by the Ministry of Social Development community connector grants, which came out of the Covid-19 response and recovery fund, has been invaluable, but the organisation also needs more long-term contracts.
“We’ve got a huge youth crime issue at the moment. People are getting really behind on rent and we’ve been fixing windows that have been smashed in family harm incidents,” she says. “So being able to have more financial support to is helpful. But the key thing is not just being able to buy stuff, but also being able to fund the staff on the ground who are using their personal cars to drive around and deliver to people, particularly for those who are isolating at home [with Covid].”
Moore’s organisation has also been playing its part in getting more people vaccinated, in a community with one of the lowest rates in the city. She says as a trusted local group, The Pride Project has been able to approach families in a non-confrontational way and provide other wraparound support.
“When we’ve gone door to door, we have not just been talking about vaccinations but also we’ve been able to ask what else is going on here and take a more holistic approach.”
Ardern explains that The Pride Project’s ability to build on existing relationships is exactly why the government is relying more than ever on local providers in the ongoing battle with Covid.
“The reason we’re [prioritising local providers] is because at this time people are really stressed. So you want to be dealing with people in your community who are familiar to you, who will immediately build a trusting relationship with you and because they’ll be able to support you the quickest.”
Ardern says it’s this type of support, provided by locals, that the government hopes to increase funding to in coming months.