More than 20,000 Aucklanders don’t have access to regular showers or the ability to wash their clothing. Alice Webb-Liddall tags along on a shift with Orange Sky, who are giving homeless people back these basic needs.
On an overcast Friday morning outside the Auckland City Mission, a group of volunteers are gathered around an orange van. There’s a bit of rain falling, and for the homeless population, which numbers around 20,000 in New Zealand’s largest city, this means muddy, wet and cold clothing and blankets. Winter is a miserable time, even more so than usual, for those sleeping rough.
But despite the rain, Orange Sky’s keen group of volunteers gathers here weekly, without fail. Their custom van is fitted with a shower, two washing machines and a clothes dryer, and open to use for anyone living without these basic necessities.
The van arrived in New Zealand in October 2018 from Australia. Eddie Uini, Orange Sky’s one full-time employee in Aotearoa, has worked with homeless people for years. The first iteration of what is now the bright orange van was a washing machine and generator on a trailer. Uini says he was running this basic system for a while before he found out about Orange Sky’s work across the ditch, with 27 vehicles servicing 22 cities around Australia each week.
Despite his experience, Uini was unaware of some of the problems that homeless people in New Zealand face. He says his eyes have been opened since taking on his new role, co-ordinating the Orange Sky work in Auckland.
“I talk to some guys who hadn’t had a shower in around six months. They ended up just chucking out their clothes because they had no way of keeping them clean.”
The Orange Sky team includes around 60 volunteers who sign up for one of the 10-14 shifts each week. They range in age, ethnicity and religion, all bringing their own unique stories to the job. Uini says there are a lot of university students and retirees on the volunteer team, and two of his staff have personal experience of living on the streets.
He tries to ensure the same volunteers are on the same shifts each week, so their regular visitors are greeted with familiar faces.
“The thing for these guys is that people in their lives come and go, they find it hard to trust people in general. Seeing now how much they trust us and are opening up to us, a lot of people don’t do their washing any more, they just sit down to have a chat. It speaks a lot to the relationships we’ve built.”
And the conversations are a huge part of the mahi that Orange Sky does. The volunteers set up chairs next to the van during each shift, encouraging their visitors to sit and chat. For Uini this is the most rewarding part of the job.
“I speak to some of our guys and they say ‘I haven’t spoken to anyone in five weeks.’ Just the simple act of chatting to someone and giving them a place that’s non-judgemental… that means the most to me.”
Volunteer worker Debbie Airey has been with Orange Sky since it launched in New Zealand. She says the conversations are a crucial part of the service they offer, and they’re no different to conversations she has elsewhere.
“We talk about friends, family, some people have travelled, jobs, education. They’re the same conversations I would have with anyone.”
Uini thinks there is a negative stigma that paints homeless people as bad, dirty and unworthy of help. Organisations like Orange Sky are helping to change this, but people have to be more open-minded.
“If I look back, in my life I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve been lucky to have a good support network around me. It could have easily been me using one of these services… I think unless you’re with these people, you don’t get to know their stories.”
At the moment, there is only one Orange Sky van in New Zealand, but there are plans for the rollout of more vans in more cities later on this year. It’s a big project that requires the help of sponsors, volunteers and community donation drives to cover the operating costs, but it’s having a profound impact on some of the homeless community.
Airey has seen many people come and go, and says it’s a great feeling when people she’s got to know stop needing their services, “because that person’s been housed and found work”.
After only 10 months on the streets of Auckland, the Orange Sky van is producing many success stories like this, Uini explains.
“The first guy who we ever did a wash for, two weeks later he got a job and a house and he was still coming out every week to have a chat.
“It’s such a simple idea but it’s been super effective. Now I walk around the city and people are calling out my name. I’m guaranteed to run into four or five people on the street each time, who just come and say hi, and that’s really special.”