Sale-yard squalor for city's homeless

The nooks and crannies in Christchurch's earthquake-ravaged inner city are home to men with no real homes. Shelley Robinson spent five weeks getting to know them.

Each night before Cameron* goes to sleep in a hidden alley way near the central city he sticks up on the cold concrete wall a picture drawn by a three-year-old.

The picture is of a man who sleeps in a tin shed.

It was a gift from a North New Brighton kindergarten pre-schooler who was told about the homeless man who lives in a tin shed.

The picture made its way to him via a homeless volunteer worker.

Cameron doesn't know the toddler but the gesture brought warmth to the man who does indeed live under a tin roof on Christchurch's bitter streets.

It wasn't always so.

Three months ago Cameron was wearing a suit.

He had a good job, earned good money, but started to feel "not right"; something crept up on him which he couldn't put his finger on.

He told his employers he was shifting to Auckland and left his job. They told him he would always have a position with them.

But unknown to his former colleagues, he now lives on the streets not far from where they still work.

Cameron couldn't pay rent and because he quit his job he had to have a "stand down" period before getting a benefit.

He long ago stopped relying on his family and can't explain to anyone what is going on in his head.

"Maybe it is some kind of depression?" he says.

Cameron is articulate, intelligent and trying to reclaim who he is. But for the moment, the streets are all he can deal with. The thought of bills and talking to people is too much to bear.

He smiles a lot, but hides a lot behind it - a certain sadness. Looking at him, tidy even fashionably dressed, you could be forgiven for assuming he is on his way home from work.

Instead, he is on his way home to a hard concrete floor in an alleyway - one of four places he frequents - three now that Centennial pool complex is being demolished.

"You have to move around a bit. If someone sees you, then you move to another place and so on," he says.

He has just enrolled in a course at CPIT to satisfy Work and Income New Zealand that he is "taking steps" to finding employment.

It is a course he could teach - such is his knowledge in the area. "I'll just pretend I don't know anything," he says with a small smile.

Cameron is a part of the central city homeless along with a group of colourful characters including Mickey , Uncle, Daniel* and a group of young men and about 10 others. They sleep curled in doorways, or alleyways, under a bridge or in holes in abandoned buildings, like Mickey.

The "rough side" of town is at the Addington stockyards where the "urbans" doss down. In summer about 30 homeless people will stay out there, says Mickey.

The nomads to the east live in abandoned red-zoned buildings, on the beach, or couch surf.

There is no way to calculate their numbers but since the earthquakes there have been refugees from the residential red zone - people with no house, no insurance and unable to work out the bureaucracy behind the complex settlement process.

Once upon a time Dave had a wife, a house and "a bloody good life". His house fell down, his wife left him and it was too much for him to handle. He was lost and struggling. Now he lives on the streets.

Mickey has been on the streets for about three years since his house in Bexley "fell down" in the February earthquakes. He was on a fishing boat working when it happened. There was no insurance and life snowballed from there. He has lived on the streets before, but hates it.

At the moment he is battling some demons in his head. He has bi-polar. Battling mental illness everyday whilst in a warm house with loving family support is unspeakably difficult. Fighting it on the streets is just plain cruel.

Not only that, Mickey is also detoxing off synthetic cannabis and cannabis - consumed so he could forget the monotony of cold, wet nights. There is nothing to do but sit. No television, no light to read a book. Just your thoughts and your environment. Never really sleeping because you are on guard waiting to be attacked or busted.

There is no relief in waking. No money means no food. No water. No coffee.

Honesty is his last refuge.

"Everyone out here has some kind of conviction. We steal. We squat. The young ones fight. We don't want to. It sucks out here," he says.

His spot is a "hole in a wall" near the Cashel Mall. It's hidden so well, people shopping don't realise that just metres away are his rotting mattress and blankets. It was found for him by a central city security person who was once homeless himself.

The security guard, who cannot be named due to his job, keeps an eye on Mickey and wakes him up at 5.30am when he finishes his shift.

All the central city homeless must be out of their spots by 5.30am when City Care workers start, says Mickey.

Keeping where you sleep secret is paramount - otherwise another homeless person may claim it or the police can come "roll" it, he says.

Homeless like Cameron who sleep in a spot where people walk past during the day, must hide the gear hoping no-one sees it and bins it.

Cameron wanders around from 5.30am until South City Mall opens at 7.30am.

There he can have a quick wash, brush his teeth and a shave.

He and Mickey then go to the libraries and try to stay under the radar.

"The library people are nice - but sometimes we smell and it is too much for them," says Mickey.

There is no food and no coffee throughout the day. Mickey and Cameron either discreetly dig through rubbish tins or simply wait until 7pm when they can get a "feed".

Grace Vineyard Church, Salvation Army, Christchurch City Mission, taxi driver Daniel Chung and others volunteer their time to feed the homeless daily.

They can shower at the City Mission or, like the younger ones, have a "bath" in the Avon River.

Mickey appears to have little patience for the younger homeless. They annoy him because they drink too much. He has been sober for eight years - it's tough to keep that up on the streets.

But behind the gruff words, he is protective and loyal to the young lads.

Daniel is one of the group currently annoying Mickey.

He and a group of five have been sleeping beside Latimer Square in a "hut".

The hut belongs to the Department of Conservation and the young men have been leaving their gear there during the day. It is messy and not great for pre- schoolers, who do class visits to learn about native plants.

Daniel has been on the street on and off since he was 12. He looks hard with his black clothes and tattoos. But he is in fact vulnerable, sick of the streets yet unwilling to go back to a violent family.

"Just too much violence, eh. You can't live like that in fear of your life. Just too much. Here, here I am safer," he says.

But the streets have their own dangers.

"You've always got to watch your back, eh. Even when you are sleeping, you're like watching, you know what I mean?"

Young people outnumber older homeless. They are runaways from group homes or runaways from abuse - sexual, physical and emotional - or kids just wanting a bit of street cred, he says.

"I encourage the young ones not to come out here - this place will just chew you up and spit you out. I've had people kill themselves out here, die out here," says Daniel.

He wants a job but when employers see him and see his handwriting he is put at the bottom of the pile, he says.

Most of the young boys do not get benefits because they cannot prove they are looking for work or have a postal address.

The group is mentored by Uncle.

"These fellas don't listen to anyone eh, but they listen to Uncle," says Mickey.

Uncle has been on and off the streets most of his life and is likely to celebrate his 50th birthday there.

He is quietly spoken, wise and kind.

Uncle has to counter years of abuse, fear and illiteracy to get these young men to believe they are worthy.

"They can get jobs sometimes but it is the fear, you know? The fear of failure," says Uncle.

Right now is the worst it has ever been for homeless in Christchurch, he says.

"There is just nothing [ housing] - it is all so expensive," he says.

Daniel is adamant no woman should end up out on the streets.

"This is no place for women, no place at all. It's just not safe for them - it just takes one drunken person, you know?"

He is right. During the five weeks I spent with the homeless, some overnight stays, no women are found living rough in the central city.

The only women are Manchester St prostitutes. They pity the homeless, and wish they could help them.

The simple truth is, women can earn money through prostitution; meaning they can get the money for a bond and rent.

Cameron and Mickey say women are put into flats quickly because of the danger to them out on the streets.

Anna-Marie* was the last woman sleeping it rough in the central city, according to Mickey.

She isn't hard to track down, most know her. She has a child- like naivety and is running around in a bathrobe and flannelette pyjamas at Latimer Square.

The Salvation Army are doing "a feed" and she has come out to see her old friends.

She is effervescent and a ray of sunshine in a bleak, dark street.

It's been a month since she stopped working as a prostitute on Manchester St.

"I would pretend to be really stupid so that the other girls wouldn't think of me as a threat," she says.

Previous attempts to find a job have not gone well.

"They see my handwriting which is like, all like a little kid's. Then they say they want experience and I'm like I can learn quick. But yeah," she says sadly.

She also has dyspraxia - a developmental disorder.

She has a "house" now she says proudly. Looking sadly at Daniel and his group over at the hut, she wishes she could do something for them. Something has to be done because DoC are considering removing the hut because of the five young men who sleep side-by- side each night.

They are lippy and protective of their "spot", scaring the public.

There is no choice but for them to head to the Addington cattle yards - a bleak and dangerous place. It's so dangerous, Mickey and long-time streetie Gary Dickey, will not let me go there without their supervision.

Just metres away from picturesque Hagley Park, the pride of Christchurch, is the homeless camp. The contrast is shocking, heart-breaking and it takes days to get over the sight. No-one should have to live like that.

The cattle yards look harmless in the dark and then the cloying smell of rotten and mouldy bedding hits before the first "village" is seen. In the dark you can see the skeleton's of bedraggled abandoned tents, old bicycles, shopping trolleys, couches, cans, bongs and mud. There is no-one here. It has been abandoned because a homeless man, a friend to many on the streets, killed himself nearby. The area needs to be blessed, we are told.

Mickey is going to end up out there because his hole is about to be demolished. He doesn't want to - there is too much booze and too much violence.

Daniel and his group of survivors will be out here in a matter of days. Uncle is likely to join them. Here they will all be out of the sight of the public.

* Names have been changed.


Several Christchurch community groups gather food, sleeping bags, tents, toiletries and shoes for the city's homeless.

They include Christchurch City Mission, Salvation Army, Te Whare Roimata, Grace Vineyard Church, Delta Community Trust and Comcare Trust, New Brighton Project Blanket Bank. Ngai Tahu social service organisation He Oranga Pounamu oversees 22 affilated services.

Cleaner Amy Burke, 36, is an example of someone who wanted to help and did something about it.

She set up a Facebook page, Help for the Homeless, and began handing out warm clothes, gloves, hats, thermals, sleeping bags, waterproof coats - all which were donated by Christchurch people and from as far away as Australia.

It turned into a huge volunteer organisation, mobilising people throughout the country who have donated and cared without passing judgment.

There is a network of "dropoff" points where people can make donations. These are at North New Brighton School, Rolleston, St Albans, Spreydon, Hornby, Rangiora, Beckenham, Merivale, Ashburton and Hororata - you can find the addresses on the Facebook page.

Burke has organised lunches every Tuesday at Latimer Square from donations of home baking and hot food to supplement the night "feedings" by outreach organisations, churches and taxi driver Daniel Chung.

Handing out the food began on the hood of her car but now Tui Campers has supplied her with a campervan.

Burke, with helper Geraldine Whelan, also organised a vet nurse to check on the health of animals with the homeless.

Another nurse was brought in by Burke when large sores were noticed on the legs of a few of the homeless.

Burke is now advocating for affordable housing and a secure locker system where the homeless can leave their belongings during the day.

This help has had an amazing effect on some of the homeless.

Sporting new warm clothes, Craig, who lives under a bridge, stands proudly in his new gear.

Tears roll down the face of his homeless friend who has never seen Craig so proud.

Mickey, Cameron, Uncle, Daniel, Dave, Craig and all the other nameless homeless are overwhelmed that people do care. Thank you, they say..

The Press