The Auckland City Mission is in the midst of a $90 million redevelopment. Gareth Shute, once a volunteer at the Mission, talks with long-serving staff member Wilf Holt about how the Mission has developed over the past two decades and what lies ahead for this nearly 100-year old institution.
Back in 1999, I was a part-time student and library worker who’d hung around university for far too long. I decided to at least use some of my ample free time constructively and arranged to spend every second Saturday at the Auckland City Mission, manning the counter from 2.30pm-8.30pm along with a regular staff member. The Drop In Centre was a large dining area with faded linoleum floors, crowded with worn-out chairs and tables.
My role was making hot drinks for whoever came through the door. I started to follow the rugby and the league so I’d have something to talk about and brought in Bob Marley and Che Fu CDs to lift the mood (the only artists that lasted long on the stereo without complaint). We also gave out donated food, usually endless bread rolls. More upmarket food was sometimes met with a mixed reception. Once, I saw a someone break up a pack of sushi, remove the seaweed, cover it in soy sauce, and heat it up in the microwave (it actually looked pretty good!)
Eventually, I met Wilf Holt who’s currently team leader of Homeless Community Services. He started at the Mission in the mid-90s and his family has been intimately involved with the running of the organisation over the years. His wife, Diane Robertson, acted as CEO for 22 years (she left in 2015) and his three sons have all worked at the Mission at various times.
When I was a volunteer, I marvelled at his ability to talk with openness to anyone that came through the door while also retaining the ability to deliver hard truths when a person’s mindset needed to be challenged. He tells me that the Drop In Centre (now known as Haeata) has changed hugely during his time at the Mission.
“It’s almost unrecognisable these days from what it was, though the basic functions still carry on. Back then, we never knew from one day to the next what food we were going to have. In recent years, we did have groups bringing in food but – although it was very welcome – they would invariably not bring enough or they often wouldn’t bring food that was balanced nutritionally. Sausages don’t make a meal even if they’re in a bun with a little bit of onion in it.
“Whereas now, we have a chef that can provide meals that are nutritious and balanced using donated food. We can now cater to people who are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarean, presbyterian – you name it! We can also keep food warm. People used to have to rush in before the food ran out, there was no dignity in a queue that went out the door and down the road. We tried giving out numbers but people didn’t like that either. We don’t have to worry about that now: the same food will be in those bain maries from 7.30am until 10am and from noon to 2.30pm. So it doesn’t matter if you come at 2pm, you won’t miss out.”
The current dining area itself is also modern and inviting, which has led it being better treated by visitors (for example, the old bathroom was covered in graffiti while Wilf has only noticed one tiny scrawl in the new cubicles). Further improvements are planned when the Mission’s redevelopment, HomeGround, is completed in October next year. Most notably, it will also include homes for 80 tenants with wrap around support services provided onsite to help keep people off the streets.
“If somebody has been on the streets for a reasonable length of time, then those behaviours that have allowed them to survive on the streets are not necessarily useful behaviours for when you have a tenancy. To think just by giving somebody a house, every problem will resolve itself is nonsense. It just doesn’t work. You don’t even need research to show that. Just need to talk to the average tenancy manager, let alone social workers, doctors, therapists, police and ambulance staff.”
From the outside, it might seem like the homelessness problem has expanded exponentially over the last 20 years, but Wilf has found the increase more of a steady grind upwards. However, he’s been alarmed by the huge increase in emergency food parcels. Last year, the Mission packed more than 21,000 of them to be distributed to families and individuals in crisis (around half are provided through partner agencies like Papakura Marae and Ngā Whare Waatea Marae). In fact, the demand outstripped donations for two weeks in December and the Mission forced to purchase supplies to keep up, at a huge cost to the organisation.
The Mission runs a large distribution centre in Grafton where these food parcels are put together. The centre is also where the donations are sorted (some to be sold, others to be given to those in need).
During my time at the Mission, I also spent four months driving the delivery van, taking furniture and other items to people’s houses. This work gave me another view of poverty: a father and son who’d been sleeping on the floor, because he’d come to Auckland for work and spent all their savings on the bond for their unit; a retiree living with newspapers strewn across his floors and toenails grown so long he couldn’t wear shoes; a young solo mother whose place had been robbed for the second time in a month, leaving not even the kettle or toaster.
The distribution centre moved from Onehunga to Grafton in 2004 and current manager, Tracy Goddard, showed me the current premises. Again there were plenty of marked improvements: a large chiller for food and forklifts to move items around, plus twice as many delivery vehicles. However, some things hadn’t changed, like the huge pile of mattresses stacked in one corner. The Mission only gives out full beds with bases since the last thing you want is for children in damp housing to do is sleep close to the ground (which increases their chance of illness). It’s also a matter of dignity – poverty is enough of a mental burden without giving people crappy furniture and thereby saying ‘this is all you deserve’.
What the Mission needs in the run-up to winter are large blankets and duvets (doubles, queens) and complete beds (mattresses & bases). Other items furniture, household items and clothing are gratefully accepted if they’re in good condition and these days, the Mission not only has shops but a Trademe store where you can pick up a bargain. All proceeds from the Op Shop sales help to run the Mission’s services.
It impressed me to see that one of the women in the distribution centre was still there from when I’d been there 20 years earlier (we had a laugh about the crotchety old manager). It made me wonder if any of the regulars I’d served at the Drop In Centre were still around, so I ran a few names past Wilf and received some unsurprising replies.
“No he’s dead I’m afraid…”
“Haven’t seen her for a while because she’s up north, settled with whanau…”
“Oh him, We don’t see much of him at all…”
“He died a few years back…”
Wilf tells me that the most current research shows that long periods of rough sleeping are estimated to take 40 years off a person’s life. This is reflected in the funerals that he’s had to organise over the years, many for people still in their twenties or thirties. On some occasions, there are are no family members present; or the families might whisk the body away, leaving the Mission to have their own memorial.
Personally, I found that during my years of volunteering I became hardened to the things I would see. For example, when I helped a staff member remove the shoes from a homeless man with mental problems which released a stench of foot-rot that cleared the entire Drop In area of people. And yet the staff member – a friendly middle-aged Filipino woman – scrubbed both feet clean while I held the bucket, then gave him new socks and shoes. Moments like these would creep up on me at home, I’d find myself struck by stark contrast to my spoilt, middle-class life and then finally some tears might come.
Yet, even after 25 years, Wilf remains resilient to these aspects of his work.
“Bluntly, bad things happen to people. It’s not the gods, it’s not fate, it’s not kismet. But also, really good things happen to people. People can change and do change, even for those who struggle with change and resist it mightily, I just focus on how I can make a difference in their lives.
“All walks of life have come through our doors: teachers, builders, taxi drivers, real estate agents. At the same time, the reality is that you’re more likely to be rough sleeping if you come from a background of poverty, if you’ve had a brain injury, experienced marginalisation or violence in the home.
“If everyone on earth could take a pill that would mean they’d never [suffer from] a mental health illness, brain damage, physical injury, trauma and so on, then… we’d probably eliminate homelessness! But of course, it ain’t gonna happen.”
Fortunately, Wilf finds much to be optimistic about, especially the possibilities that the redeveloped Mission will provide. It won’t just house 80 clients, it will also see the creation of a larger detox facility and expanded medical centre. I ask Wilf what he hoped to see in the Mission in another 20 years time.
“I’d hope we could provide vocational opportunities. For instance, what if we had an upholstery workshop? That might be a way to recycle some of the items we can’t sell from the distribution centre. If somebody is getting ready to move into a flat, we can say ‘let’s get to the auctions, find an old chair, strip it down, reupholster it, we’ll show you how to do that’. Somebody might not do more than that, but they might also think ‘I’m quite good at this’ and it set them on a new path. It would be lovely to think that we might have seasonal work opportunities by establishing relationships with kiwifruit farms, vineyards, etc. Where labour’s needed and there’s decent accommodation, we could provide a workforce.
“I’d like to see the arts and crafts side get bigger. We already have art and clay workshops, and our drama club has been going 10 years, opening to a full house at the Fringe Festival and they’re going to the Fringe in Wellington and Dunedin too. It’d be great to get our own gallery so we could sell work.”
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As for me, I hope I’m around to see this transition take place. These days I mainly support the City Mission via donating money rather than volunteering, knowing firsthand how much further it will go than tossing a few coins to someone on the street (it also makes blunt financial sense, since you get a third of the money back at tax return time). It’s been heartening to see the growth of their Christmas lunch and newer campaigns like the Auckland City Mission Cook-Off, which pairs business leaders with top chefs to make food for 150 clients while fundraising for the Mission’s work.
Looking back, it’s funny to recall the meeting in 2001 when Wilf told us volunteers that we’d gain as much from our time at the Mission as the clients would from having us there. I was actually a little affronted to be told that my work there was as much for my own benefit as the clients. But in the years since, I’ve realised the truth of it. There was no sharper way to have my own privileged upbringing held out for me to examine, week-after-week, expanding my window into the rest of the world. My donations in the years since feel like I’m paying off a student loan for one of the best pieces of education I ever received.
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