Night shelter last lifeline for homeless Wellington man

Jim Birchall in the Wellington Night Shelter cubicle he calls home.
RHIANNON MCCONNELL/ FAIRFAX NZ

Jim Birchall in the Wellington Night Shelter cubicle he calls home.

Not long ago Jim Birchall was living the Kiwi dream. He had a steady job, a place to call home and was awaiting the birth of his first child.

Now he's one of at least 120 homeless New Zealanders.

By day he walks Wellington's streets; at night he sleeps at the Night Shelter in a cubicle big enough for a bed and a few belongings.  

Birchall said he was a good man who had made a few bad mistakes. Those mistakes landed him in Rimutaka Prison for 4½ months on arson charges.

He was released last September and, on his first night out, he was dropped at the Night Shelter.

"Because of the convictions I'd been done for, I wasn't able to get any accommodation, so I ended up here," the 59-year-old said.

"I'm just thankful I've got somewhere to put my head at night."

It's a story Wellington Night Shelter operations manager Tyler Dunkel hears too often.

"One pay cheque is often the difference between remaining stable in your home and ending up on the street in this situation," he said.

On October 9, Wellington will take part 14 Hours Homeless, an initiative to raise awareness and funds for community services working with the homeless.  

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"It's really highlighting what people like Jim have gone through and how easy it is to go from being a normal upstanding person in society to, 'Oh my gosh, I don't have anywhere to live tonight. What do I do?' " Dunkel said.  

For Birchall, the night shelter was a lifeline. "Without it I'd be sleeping in my car," he said.

Since leaving prison the invalid beneficiary and former courier manager has bounced between the shelter and a home provided by mental health support service Atareira.

His days have taken on a schedule: leave the shelter at 9am, volunteer at rehabilitation centre Courtenay's on Willis, read at the library until the Soup Kitchen opens for dinner, then back at the shelter at 5.30pm.

Then Courtenay's on Willis was closed, because of mental health budget cuts last year.

"Now, I go to the Soup Kitchen to have breakfast and, depending on the weather, just start walking and keep walking.

"I miss comradeship and I miss working, because that's what I did until the fire. It's just one of those things. You've just got to get on with life."

Dunkel said the closing of centres such as Courtenay's on Willis had had a devastating effect on the men using the shelter.

"You don't really have a purpose. Quite a few of them, like Jim, are trying to find something meaningful to do during the day.

"They want to do something, they have free time and are industrious but unfortunately with centres closing and a lack of funding there just isn't much to do except hang around.

"They need purpose. Everybody needs purpose."

Dunkel said the awareness raised by initiatives such as 14 Hours Homeless could lead to more funding and the shelter being able to have longer opening hours, more social services and a nicer environment.

One idea was to create a work programme to give men like Birchall purpose.

"Through volunteering we can upskill a lot of our guys so they are more marketable in a job environment.

"A lot of our guys would love to work if they could find something."

ROUGHING IT FOR THE HOMELESS

During Wellington's 14 Hours Homeless event, teams of three or more will spend the night on cardboard or couches under the stars or sleeping in cars.

The aim is to raise money for five organisations working with the homeless and collaborating under Wellington City Council's Te Mahana initiative, which has a goal of eradicating homelessness in the city.

It is the first time Downtown Community Ministry, the Soup Kitchen, Wellington Homeless Women's Trust, Wellington Night Shelter and The Salvation Army have come together for fundraising. 

The organisations work with hundreds of people each year who are sleeping rough, staying in overnight emergency accommodation, temporarily with family or friends or living in dilapidated or unsafe dwellings.

For information visit, 14hourshomeless.org.nz/event/wgtn.

 - The Wellingtonian

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