A sense of social justice

17:00, Jun 18 2014
Stephanie McIntyre
COMPASSIONATE: DCM director Stephanie McIntyre thinks New Zealanders are nervous about street begging.

They don't think of themselves as particularly influential women. Nor do they consider themselves to be unsung heroes.

But Stephanie McIntyre and Pam Tregonning have both made careers out of helping some of the most vulnerable people in their communities, and in doing so, have improved the lives of thousands.

Key to their work with groups that are often forgotten is their unfailing compassion.

Pam Tregonning
DETERMINED TO HELP: Pam Tregonning says poor, brown kids weren’t high on anybody’s radar.

Stephanie McIntyre displays that characteristic when walking down Wellington's Lambton Quay or Willis Street.

If she sees someone begging on the streets, she doesn't avert her gaze or fob them off with a brusque wave. Instead, she stops in her tracks and she sits down to talk to them.

"New Zealanders are nervous and quite concerned about street begging," McIntyre said.


She is the director of DCM, formerly the Downtown Community Ministry - an organisation aiming to help end homelessness in Wellington. It provides those living rough and on the brink of homelessness with assistance to find housing, better manage their money, have enough food to eat, and stay healthy.

The number of individuals it supports each year has doubled within five years from 435 to 850.

It was started by a group of Wellington churches in 1969 and these days has a range of funders -  the Wellington City Council, Ministry of Social Development, charitable trusts, member faith communities, and individual donors.

McIntyre's role as director, which the mother of two has held since 2004, is challenging and often thankless.

"It doesn't make me depressed. It doesn't make me saintly or cynical either," she said.

It wasn't until she spent a few months in Boston in 2000 that she realised the extent of problems around urban homelessness.

"It was absolutely gut-wrenching. These homeless people had the most visceral stories about their lives."

More than half of those walking through DCM's door in Te Aro, Wellington, meet New Zealand's definition of homeless. Seventy-five per cent of them are men and many struggle with mental illness or have had troubled family lives.

"It makes me just want these people to be given a fair hearing and a place where they can be given the support that they need," McIntyre said.

"Our society is richer in every respect when we treat these people with dignity."

When she joined DCM, it mainly helped people access their income entitlements but that has changed over time to address homelessness and its underlying issues. An additional service she has introduced has been to work with the Wellington Dental Association on a low cost dental service for their homeless clients.

"I'm a great believer that change is possible. But there are people working on all levels of social change."

Further north, in the south Auckland suburb of Papatoetoe, Pam Tregonning is hitting the phones to raise funds for Middlemore Hospital and public health initiatives in Manukau.

Tregonning has been the executive director of the Middlemore Foundation For Health Innovation since it was founded in 1999.

Until recently it was known as the South Auckland Health Foundation and has raised around $34 million in the past 13 years for the local hospital and community through events, sponsorships and donations.

The name change reflects a shift from the independent organisation fund-raising for the hospital, to supporting more of the hospital's outreach to deal with urgent health issues in the community.

The foundation's many success stories include the Kidz First Children's Hospital, and new intensive care and neonatal units at Middlemore Hospital.

It was the organisation's plans around the children's hospital that got Tregonning onboard.

"Poor brown kids weren't high on anybody's radar," she said. "For New Zealanders, they don't understand how difficult it can be."

Prior to the foundations' establishment, the Canadian-born Tregonning was a lecturer in public health at the Manukau Institute of Technology. Her husband Garnet works as an orthopaedic suregon at Middlemore Hospital.  

Tregonning said while her children supported her work, they sometimes wished she would "get off the bandwagon".

They were often surprised by the people she worked with in her role, she said, recounting their shock when former All Black Sean Fitzpatrick once appproached her in a Wellington cafe for a chat.

The original plan for the children's hospital was visionary, with beds for parents beside their children and a maximum of two children per room.

But in the end there just wasn't the money to meet the vision.

"The difference with the Starship Foundation was we had to raise [funds] for the entire hospital," Tregonning said.

"There are 280,000 kids living in poverty. If there was a will in this country we could change that."

Tregonning's focus now is on improving the health of South Auckland's most at risk. She is particularly concerned about the scourge of rheumatic fever, which she said was estimated to have a lifelong cost of $2 million for each child diagnosed with the disease.

Shifting resources towards preventative health measures is key, Tregonning said, but it also poses a significant challenge.

"It's easy to look at easy cases for funding, like rare diseases or children with cancer.

"The difficulty is getting people to acknowledge the fact that people living in lower socio-economic situations need more resources."

Tregonning, who has a knack for gently shifting the conversation away from herself and back to public health, finds herself just as comfortable sitting on the floor at the Papakura Marae as she does at black tie fundraisers. She is determined to help those in need without moralising.

"I don't see myself as a community hero. But I have always had a strong sense of social justice."

Like Tregonning, McIntyre doesn't see herself as a hero.

"From being street homeless to holding a flat, people who struggle with these issues, they're the unsung heroes to me - people struggling with addiction, with mental illness."