Streets of broken dreams

NICCI MCDOUGALL
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014
Homelessness
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
HIDDEN PAIN: Homelessness isn’t always publicly visible, and the stigma means people affected and the wider issues often remain in the shadows in the south.

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"You go to a place where you have no hope." Nicci McDougall talks to a man about life on the streets and what the homeless need in the south.

"You get to a stage where you just give up. You just don't care."

And for John, being homeless has been a 40-year vicious cycle.

Speaking about his life with candour, he admits he committed crimes to get a roof over his head. He's stolen, robbed a bank and he was just nine weeks out of jail but most of all for him, he finally has a place to call home.

Reflecting on life on the streets and couch surfing just to have somewhere to sleep, he says people in need would benefit from a homeless shelter in Invercargill.

It would be well used, he says.

The Breathing Space Trust Southland hopes to open a shelter in the city next year, and is about to start fundraising.

Trust committee chairman Colin Wood said the need for a shelter was apparent because people were still sleeping rough.

The Invercargill City Council had granted $20,000 toward addressing homelessness in the city, and the trust needs about $90,000 to cover setup costs, wages and the lease of the building.

An Otago University study into homelessness shows there are 330 "severely housing-deprived" people in Southland, according to 2006 census data.

Salvation Army bosses says homelessness in Invercargill is a bigger issue than most people recognise.

Army captain Perry Bray, at a city council meeting earlier this year, said the shelter would help the homeless to get back on their feet and provide them with support to find permanent accommodation.

The homeless were not just those roughing it on the street, but also those cramming into houses and sleeping on mattresses at other people's houses, he said.

John, in his 50s, now in a flat of his own, was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He says this condition contributed to his homelessness.

As a youngster living in Christchurch, he left home after being molested by several people, including a family member, he said.

He was 14.

He found beds where he could and stole to buy a ticket to Australia. He arrived with a backpack and $100 in his pocket.

"I wanted to get as far away from there as possible."

But three weeks later he stole a car and drove it to the police station so he would be arrested and have a bed for the night.

Throughout the years, he often had employment, but constantly sabotaged it because of his alcohol dependency, he said.

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After a failed marriage in Australia, he went to the Salvation Army rehabilitation centre in his first attempt to get help for his alcohol problem. But it didn't work.

In his 30s, while in Australia, he robbed a bank, knowing he would be caught and spent 18 months in jail.

He finally returned to New Zealand in 2000.

Last year he was diagnosed with alcohol dependency disorder and was given a sickness benefit. But he could not afford regular doctor's visits, and it was cut. With no money, he found himself sleeping under a bush in Queenstown.

John spent three nights on the street, spending his long days walking around aimlessly.

"You go to a place where you have no hope . . . you get to a stage where you just give up. You just don't care."

A kind man took him in but old habits quickly resurfaced and he was sent to prison again for drink-driving.

Nine weeks ago, John was released from Invercargill Prison.

"I started thinking again about my life. Still trying to come to grips with what is this thing that's wrong with me. I'm not an unintelligent person. Why does this guy keep falling off the rails?"

And it was then, while in prison, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"And finally I have something in black and white that tells me what it was . . . I've been suffering from that the whole time."

John held his head in his hands and after letting out a deep breath said: "I finally feel free."

In his own flat in Invercargill, he now feels comfortable and relieved he does not have to leave. ACC is providing funding for ongoing counselling.

And as for his future plans: "I've only just begun." nicci.mcdougall@stl.co.nz

- The Southland Times

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