The Angel of West Auckland: From homeless to helping those less fortunate
It's a bitterly cold winter's night. A group of people huddle on Darby St, in Auckland's central city, surrounded by boxes of clothing, rolled-up foam mattresses and thick blankets.
The sun is quickly going down and the wind has crept up. A tourist is busking.
As she sings Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah, pairs of worn, dirtied hands rifle through the piles of clothing. They pull sweatshirts and pants over the clothes they are already wearing.
Plastic sandwich bags, each with a toothbrush, soap and tube of toothpaste are piled high in a cardboard box. Children hand out woollen socks. "Take whatever you need," Naylar Uisa says to anyone who passes by, "it's all free".
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As a child, Uisa would run from foster homes to Queen St, seeking refuge in the strip of brightly lit takeaway joints and souvenir shops – playing 20 cent spacies games at the 24-hour arcade to stay warm and out of trouble.
When she slept rough, she would see people stealing blankets from one another. Years later, and with two children of her own, 30-year-old Uisa has made it her mission to give back to those less fortunate.
"We could go days on the streets without anything to eat," she says.
She now feeds people on the same street she once slept on.
"You know the reason these people are there, you gotta just do what you can do to survive."
It was three years ago, Uisa started collecting blankets and secondhand clothing in her garage. She piled up what they had, and handed it out to people in their community.
What began as a single gesture of kindness soon grew. 'Reaching Out', the community programme Uisa now runs in Henderson, Kelston and central Auckland, is the realisation of that kindness.
There are dozens of new faces on the street each time, she says. Some have been homeless for years, others come and go.
The youngest person she's seen sleeping rough down in the city was just nine-years-old.
"It's a bit selfish to kinda find a way out and not go back to help," she says, handing containers of piping hot soup and cups of tea out.
She asks nothing for herself. Every week, for the past three years, she and her husband have sacrificed $60 from their income to buy supplies to feed and clothe others. She takes it in her stride, "it's worth it," she adds.
"At first, it was just stuff from our house. I didn't think we needed two or three blankets for each person, so thought we should give those away".
She would heap boxes into the back of their Hyundai station wagon, and hand out blankets while her kids slept in the car.
Uisa exudes warmth: each small act to support another person comes from a place of personal experience. Caring for others, in spite of what she has seen and the stories she has heard, is natural.
She doesn't do it alone any more – friends and members of her church join her – spending most weekends running different drives across Auckland.
Her sons, nine-year-old Ketilani and four-year-old Hoseah help out too, this week they've bagged toiletry packs. They love it, she says: "they get to learn other people's stories. They get to meet kids the same age as them going through harder stuff than they do".
More people are sleeping rough in Auckland now than ever before. A recent study from the University of Otago found half of the country's 40,000 homeless live in Auckland.
In 2016, Auckland City Mission's rough sleeper count topped 200 people for the first time, since the study started in 2004.
The Mission found 117 people sleeping rough within a three-kilometre radius of the Sky Tower.
And while demand for their services has increased, their resources haven't.
Uisa still drives the same vehicle, and is regularly moved along from inner city spots for trying to avoid paying $16 an hour for parking.
People who volunteer give all they can – some already giving too much, she says – so having to ask people to fish into their own pockets for parking leaves much to be desired for Uisa.
She's noticed familiar faces have followed them since moving to west Auckland this year.
People catch the train out to Henderson for the nights Uisa and her crew line Railside Ave with tables, a barbecue and heated tanks of tea and coffee. Occasionally, they run out of food.
When that happens, Uisa often sits in her car in tears, shes says.
"If the food finishes and more people are still coming, it can be so hard to turn people away. Sometimes we buy pizzas, or whatever is close by, so they don't have to go without".
She knows what it is like to have nothing, and says no one should ever go through that.
In the short term, she dreams of buying a van and food trailer, so she can feed all those who come and ask. But she wants to do more.
Uisa wants to study psychology and counselling, and has her sights set on one day opening a drop-in centre where she can provide food, showers, and shelter for people in need.
She concedes that one person can't do it all – people often flock to her wanting to do something to help – but often just don't know how.
Just start, she says.
"Instead of saying, 'no we can't help', let's see if we can".
Uisa says her mission is that no one gets left behind or left out.
When asked to sum up why she has such drive to give, she says all they're doing is loving people the way we all want, and deserve, to be loved.
"Wherever you're from, whatever your story, you're going to be treated like family," she says.
And as she embraces each person who approaches her for something to eat, or something warm to wrap themselves in as they spend another cold night sleeping on the streets, it is clear she means every word.
* The Reaching Out Givealittle page is run with support of the Community Christian Fellowship (CCF).
CCF manager Peter Heath said "100 per cent of the funds raised through Givealittle will go to Reaching Out."
The church does not collect any money from the funds raised.
If you wish to help Uisa buy a van and food trailer for deliveries click here.
- Sunday Star Times