Avonside block is city's most-deprived

Bringing up kids in gang-heavy Avonside block

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 05:00 11/08/2014
Matt Smyth and four kids
Kirk Hargreaves

BUSY LIFE: Matt Smyth and his kids from left Sarah 14, Neo 11, Matua 3 and Morgana 17.

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With his head hung low and his hands in the pockets of his paint-spattered jeans, a stooped figure stands sentinel at the entrance to an Avonside housing complex.

Edward, not his real name, gazes warily at the nearby units.

Some stop to talk to the complex's makeshift custodian as they pass, others wait for him to acknowledge them.

The area is largely quiet, bar a few teenagers yelling profanities.

This small cul-de-sac in Avonside is on Christchurch's most deprived block, according to new research. The Press spent time on the block talking to local residents as part of an investigation into the city's economic landscape.

Tucked in behind a major thoroughfare on the fringe of the red-zone, it is a well-kept area dominated by weatherboard-style Housing New Zealand properties.

Many who live in the area feel the neighbourhood is unsafe, noting the number of gang factions who have spent time here, and the drug-selling taking place just outside their gate in the middle of the day.

It is a quiet area, a slice of suburbia where it is rare to find residents spending time outdoors.

On a Tuesday morning, the giggling of a 3-year-old boy aloft his father's shoulders, returning home from a trip to the park is the lone sound.

In this mint-green, paint-chipped state house with a yellow door and an overgrown garden, Matt Smyth is trying to bring up four children.

With shared custody between him and his two ex-partners, Smyth runs an IT business to allow him as much time as possible with them.

Once inside the house, perhaps most striking is not the mould on the walls or the coldness of the air, but the supply of technology.

A computer of varying model sits in every room - a result of an "overflow" of his business venture, and a deliberate investment into what Smyth believes is something that will better his children's education and opportunities.

"I am hugely aware of child poverty and what that means for me," Smyth said.

"And what it means is investing everything I can in my children's education, and sacrificing my own personal wants so they can have access to a telephone, PCs and after-school programmes."

Smyth might classify himself as "poor", but he knows he is not the most deprived in the area.

The children's grandparents provide financial aid, particularly for after-school activities including ballet, swimming, singing and music lessons, without which the kids would have "missed out".

"Sometimes it's like, do we provide this for our children or do we eat?" he said.

"Once you've got four children, minimum wage isn't cutting it. It's completely hard, it's not easy. But that's why I've taken to contracting - so I can be flexible and be involved with my kids."

Each week was a "total stretch" financially. The money earned from his business, or cash saved from working extra hours in preceding weeks, covered what his Jobseeker Support did not in power and living costs.

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The Single Parent's Benefit goes to the children's mothers.

Smyth has lived in the same area for 13 years and the same house for seven, but it is one he wishes he could leave. The three-bedroom property is cold, draughty and is surrounded by two feet of unmoved liquefaction.

Morgana, 17, Sarah, 14, Neo, 11, and Matiu, 3, share two bedrooms when they come to stay. They are mouldy and damp, despite constant washing and dehumidifying.

Smyth had looked into private rentals, but said he could not afford the trade-off, in both time and money.

"That means I'd have to work full-time and you get bugger all time with the kids. I didn't want to put them in daycare, I don't want anyone to take my job."

Smyth did not associate much with others in the neighbourhood, and believed the local population of gangs, mental health patients and families was "not a healthy mix".

Outside the walls of the green and yellow house, the block is a ghost town on a weekday. Residents routinely open the door a crack to investigate who is calling, and speak through a sliver of space.

One resident, who did not want to be named, did just that, speaking about her uncertainty over the area's safety for her and her 14-year-old daughter.

The gang activity and drugs being sold outside houses meant she "keeps myself to myself".

"If there was a way I could get myself out into the country again I would go.

"I don't walk anywhere ... I don't feel safe."

Three boys across the road are the only people outdoors that day, one is dressed head to toe in blue, the other two all in red. The only activity happens on a small cul-de-sac on Jecks Pl.

The street is comprised of social housing for single occupants and supported accommodation.

This is where any entrant into the street will encounter Edward*, whose unit stands guard at the entrance to the complex.

Often found standing out the front of his property alone, or talking to others, the Gisborne-native knows almost every resident by name. Wayward newcomers need not look any further for a greeting and directions.

"Around here we try and look after each other and keep each other safe. We all know each other, we try and stick together as a community," he said.

"Here, we live day-by-day."

Edward's carefree facade quickly disintegrates when the conversation turns to poverty.

He does not own a car, lives alone, and relies on Jobseeker Support.

He was a painter for 20 years until issues with his employer left him recently out of work.

He plans to return to Gisborne. "I gave three years to Christchurch, and now I've had enough," he said.

It is ironic that people wonder why the "lower end" were always fighting and drinking, he said.

"The Government has kicked us so far down here we might as well stay here.

"They're saying the drugs and alcohol are the problem? No, that's only a suppressant to get rid of the problem for a bit."

Click here for an interactive graphic detailing more about how we live in Christchurch.

- The Press

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