Con­sider your­self one of the fam­ily

Street Re­treat is chang­ing lives for the home­less, Scott Yeo­man writes

Bay of Plenty Times - - Feature -

THE queen is the most pow­er­ful char­ac­ter in the game of chess. It can move in any di­rec­tion and across any num­ber of va­cant squares. My op­po­nent, Lisa, who learned how to play in jail, wields it like some kind of grand master. It’s her favourite piece on the board.

When I ask why, the 47-year-old grins: “Be­cause she’s me, she can move all over the place.”

The punch­line sums up her re­cent his­tory. Lisa was liv­ing in a tent in Tau­ranga Do­main for more than a year be­fore mov­ing into emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion at a hol­i­day park, then tran­si­tional hous­ing in Judea. Be­fore the tent, she was in her car (which she lost) and, be­fore that, liv­ing with a friend. “It was hard, but I made do.”

We are sit­ting across the ta­ble from each other in the Tau­ranga Moana Ma¯ ori Trust Board hall on The Strand in cen­tral Tau­ranga. It is a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and Street Re­treat is un­der way.

The hall is one of those old Kiwi clas­sics – dark wooden floors, a stage at one end and a kitch­enette off to the side, com­plete with an open­ing in the wall where to­day’s lunch is be­ing served. There are hot dogs, big pots of curry and rice pud­ding, and sweet treats such as Christ­mas mince pies.

What started as a five-week trial for a home­less day­time drop-in cen­tre in the city is now in its sixth week. That’s six Wed­nes­days when, from 11.30am-3pm, Tau­ranga’s home­less and needy have had some­where to go.

“It’s a fun-lov­ing, car­ing place to come,” Lisa says.

There is al­ways a “mean feed” and some­one to talk to. You can read the pa­per, and play board games such as chess. “And chill out and just feel loved.”

SIT­TING next to us, colour­ing in a pic­ture, is He­len. She is liv­ing in a tent in Tau­ranga Do­main, on and off. The chess game is mo­men­tar­ily paused as we strike up a con­ver­sa­tion.

“Some­times I get the odd per­son who will take me in for a night or so,” the 45-year-old says.

He­len has been home­less for eight years and says, over that time, com­mu­nity sup­port has got big­ger and bet­ter.

“When the com­mu­nity joined in to help, it’s like hav­ing a whole fam­ily.”

She says Street Re­treat is won­der­ful. “I look for­ward to com­ing here be­cause I know that some­one will be here to talk to, pro­vide cloth­ing, food.”

If you weren’t here, I ask, where would you be?

“Oh, there’s nu­mer­ous places, mainly fish­ing,” He­len an­swers, be­fore laugh­ing at her own joke.

“No. Look­ing for homes, try­ing to keep my area where I’m stay­ing tidy. That could take all day.”

She says she used to sleep in a door­way by Tau­ranga Li­brary, but was given a tent and sleep­ing bag. That meant she could move away from the build­ings in the city, “be­cause it was pretty rough”.

She has been in a tent in the Do­main for about four years. What’s it like liv­ing in the tent? “Other than on wet days?” He­len sighs. “It’s pretty rugged. You get eaten out by mice, rats.”

“That’s rough,” I say, lost for words.

“Yeah, and es­pe­cially when you don’t know you’re sleep­ing next to them. You got to give it a good clean-out.”

Then there’s the peo­ple, He­len says, “so­ci­ety”.

She prefers to stay as hid­den as pos­si­ble. “I’d rather be not seen and safe, than seen.”

Dur­ing the day, He­len wan­ders into town and looks for “some­thing bet­ter” – a way to get back on her feet. She hopes to get into emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion or tran­si­tional hous­ing like Lisa did. She hasn’t drunk al­co­hol for eight weeks, she says.

“Home­less but not hope­less,” Lisa says qui­etly, with a nod.

THE chess con­tin­ues and He­len re­turns to her colour­ing, the ta­ble shak­ing as she strokes the pa­per back and forth re­peat­edly. There is con­stant chat­ter around us and some­one is play­ing a gui­tar and singing softly.

Af­ter a slow start, Lisa and her queen be­gin to chase my chess­men around the board, set­ting traps and weak­en­ing any chance of re­sis­tance. She gets her­self a hot dog. I’m nurs­ing my sec­ond cof­fee. Lisa once “hated” chess. She found it slow and bor­ing, un­til she got to know it.

“I quite like it now . . . it’s quite easy to pick up. It’s good too be­cause you get to use your brain. It gets you think­ing.”

Be­fore she started liv­ing in her car, Lisa says she did a weld­ing course at Toi Ohomai In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Now she’s in her own onebed­room flat, she is ap­ply­ing for work again and has the goal of mov­ing into a per­ma­nent home.

“If it wasn’t for th­ese peo­ple and the kind hearts that they have, we would have had noth­ing. Some of us that have been home­less choose to be here, and some of us have no choice but to be here.”

She wraps up the game, we shake hands and I move off to see what ev­ery­one else is do­ing.

heck­mate,” shouts Clair Figg from the next ta­ble, throw­ing her hands up in the air. “Lovely jub­bly.”

Clair is in her 60s and is also liv­ing in a tent, by rail­way tracks. “I like the trains,” she says. About a month ago, some­one slashed her tent.

“I’m get­ting out of that tent be­cause it’s been pour­ing down with rain. I’m fed up with sleep­ing on a mat­tress soaked. I mean, lit­er­ally soaked.”

She’s been on the street for a cou­ple of years, but sleep­ing in a tent is fairly new to her. “That’s lux­ury. I’ve been on bus stops, park benches, grass, door­ways, con­crete. It hasn’t been easy, be­lieve.”

She says she used to live in a “lovely kauri villa” in Whanga¯ rei, be­fore she went broke and had to sell it. She rented in Tau­ranga for a while, but fell be­hind in pay­ments and was thrown out.

Clair says she needs a roof over her head. “I’m too old for this . . . so if there’s any­one out there, I re­ally do need a room, with a view.”

As for Street Re­treat, Clair thinks it’s “marvel­lous”.

“Peo­ple that are hun­gry get fed. Sim­ple as,” she says. “I re­ally take my hat off to the peo­ple that donate. Ab­so­lutely won­der­ful.”

There are al­ways fa­mil­iar faces and peo­ple in the same boat. Hot cups of cof­fee, too. “And it’s close. I can’t walk very far, be­ing my age.” Of course there’s also the chess. “It’s a beau­ti­ful chess­board and he’s a good player,” Clair says, re­fer­ring to the man sit­ting op­po­site her, the gui­tar player.

“I’m go­ing to beat him one day, be­lieve me. I’ve told him, whether he likes it or not, I will.”

But, I ask, didn’t you just win? The truth then comes out – the board was re­versed near the end of the game.

“Well, he thought he could de­feat me with what I had, and I proved him wrong,” Clair says.

Her op­po­nent, who also lives on the street, looks up at this point.

“So in a way, we sort of both were the win­ners, eh?” he says.

NPHOTOS / GE­ORGE NO­VAK

OT ev­ery­one at Street Re­treat is home­less or strug­gling; some are here for the sense of com­mu­nity, or to help. Like the vol­un­teers pre­par­ing food in the kitchen. Or Greer­ton’s Jan­ice Thomp­son, 48, who is here with her hus­band Syd.

“Be­ing around the home­less . . you get to know them or what they’ve been through,” Jan­ice says. “It’s called fel­low­ship and friend­ship . . . it’s like a wha¯nau.”

Then there’s 57-year-old Dun­can Rei­hana, who col­lects clothes with his wife Ka­t­rina and drops them off . ev­ery week. “What they’re do­ing here is pretty awe­some.”

Janie Kiri­ona, 64, is semi-re­tired – a mother of five adult chil­dren and grand­mother of seven – from Brook­field. She is play­ing Yahtzee with two Ma¯ ori War­dens, Dwayne and Lance. “I can only put it in one word,” Janie says of Street Re­treat. “Fam­ily. That’s what I see here – fam­ily. Even I feel part of this fam­ily.”

She doesn’t have a car, so each week her daugh­ter drops her off and picks her up.

“I wouldn’t want to be any­where else. I’m not do­ing this just be­cause it’s some­thing to do; I’m do­ing it be­cause I want to.”

Dwayne and Lance agree. “There’s all sorts of re­ally cool things hap­pen­ing and it’s a safe en­vi­ron­ment as well,” Dwayne says. “We don’t have any real prob­lems.”

An­gela Wal­lace, of the Com­mu­nity An­gels Tau­ranga col­lec­tive, which set up Street Re­treat, can be seen mak­ing her way around the room, chat­ting with the at­ten­dees, eat­ing curry, help­ing her fel­low vol­un­teers. “What we’re re­ally work­ing to­wards is hav­ing a five-day-a-week Street Re­treat in a build­ing that we can call our own.”

The first five Wed­nes­days of the trial were spent at Holy Trin­ity Church but, be­cause of prior book­ings, Street Re­treat had to shift this week to the trust board hall. It will be hosted here next week as well, be­fore a break over Christ­mas, and then back to Holy Trin­ity in the New Year.

A per­ma­nent, re­li­able home is the goal, An­gela says, es­pe­cially with the Tau­ranga City Coun­cil’s in­com­ing re­stric­tions on beg­ging and rough sleep­ing in the CBD, Greer­ton and Mount Maun­ganui.

At one point in the af­ter­noon, a de­lighted Clair had been given a new tent and sleep­ing bag, do­nated by a per­son who had heard about the slash­ing and soaked mat­tress.

As I say my good­byes and leave, I find her sit­ting out­side on the steps, in the sun. I wish her all the best with the new tent and she thanks me, a smile on her face. “It has been a liv­ing hell,” she says.

I leave with some words ring­ing in my ears, what Lisa said about Street Re­treat while whip­ping me in chess: “You’ll find there will be, es­pe­cially with the home­less, a lot of lives changed. And there has been. Peo­ple don’t see that, but there has been. We know.”

I can only hope Lisa is as ac­cu­rate with her out­look as she is gifted with her queen.

Chess and hot dogs are both pop­u­lar at Street Re­treat. Right: Clair Figg about to make her move dur­ing a se­ri­ous game of chess.

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