Homeless shelter benefits society, co-ordinator says

GIVING HOPE: Christian Night Shelter co-ordinator Peter Humphreys in the hall of the new shelter.
GIVING HOPE: Christian Night Shelter co-ordinator Peter Humphreys in the hall of the new shelter.

As the sun begins to set, the rain continues to pelt down in Hamilton's city centre.

Workers rush to their cars, anxious to get to their warm, dry homes.

Several men stand on Anglesea St watching them. They don't have to worry about their shoes getting wet in the rain. Some don't own a single pair.

At 5.30pm they hear the lock of a door opening. Warmth and shelter are now just seconds away.

As they step in the relief in their eyes is clear. Tonight they'll have a dry, safe place to rest their heads thanks to the efforts of a group that has fought for years to make sure Hamilton's homeless don't have to spend a rough night on the streets.

In 2007 it was estimated there were up to 80 homeless men in Hamilton.

At the time the only shelter available was the 14-bed Christian Night Shelter on Rostrevor St, which meant many seeking a bed had to be turned away.

The night shelter trust knew something had to change and set about looking for a new, bigger building to move in to.

When the shelter first opened in 1999 - in an old Chinese restaurant - it was only ever meant to be temporary.

So three months ago, when the new improved shelter was opened, their vision was finally achieved.

The new two-storey shelter is located in the old Hauora Waikato Maori Mental Health Services building, next to Child Matters and Work and Income on Anglesea St.

Co-ordinator Peter Humphreys says it's going to change lives.

"It's something that [the homeless] deserve - it's something everybody deserves."

The new shelter looks and feels more like a backpacker hostel than a shelter.

Gone is gloomy, dark entrance of the old space, in its place a bright, inviting reception area where the guys can check in for a night's stay or longer.

"It's nice for people to come in to, the other place could be quite scary. But here, because it's well lit, it's more comfortable."

A large living area opens up to a courtyard, with a large kitchen out another door.

The service has had up to 18 men a night stay at the new shelter.

"That was the busiest night and if we'd been in the other place we'd have been turning three of those guys away. I mean where would they have gone?"

On the night the Times drops in 14 men are staying.

One - a 27-year-old who didn't want to be named - said the new shelter was a huge improvement on the last one, which he stayed in from November last year.

"It's not somewhere I would have every expected to have to come. I would have never expected to be in this situation.

"I'd been working for nearly seven years doing flooring. Then I lost my job, my savings were gone and I had no other place to stay. So I had to just come here."

For the resident the shelter not only provides food and a safe place to sleep, but also other men to hang out with.

Every night at 7pm there's a karakia, before the men eat food donated by local churches and businesses.

Tonight it's filled rolls and sandwiches.

Saying the karakia used to be a task all the guys could have a turn at, until Mr Humphreys realised why they were so eager to say it.

"They'd have their eyes slightly open while saying it and then dive in before the others opened their eyes to get what they wanted first. So now we just have the one guy doing it."

For many, the meal is the only thing they eat all day.

"The food is good," the resident says. "Every now and then they're a bit short, but on Saturday nights we get a hot meal."

The warmth of the new shelter is also obvious to them.

"It feels a lot drier and there's no mould, so it's more healthy. And there's a lot more space."

Despite having just one TV in the large living room, there's little argument about what to watch.

"We usually agree - so it's not a problem," they laugh.

Mr Humphreys and the trust still need another $400,000 to cover the shortfall of buying the $1 million building.

Trust member Charles Flanagan said while it was a relief to have the new shelter, the trust was now focused on keeping the doors open.

They have until November to find that money and have been applying for grants from everyone they can think of.

But Mr Flanagan said other ideas on how to get the money had been floated - including looking for 400 people to donate $1000 each.

A low or no interest loan from a generous benefactor, or several mini fundraisers were other potential solutions being considered.

"So that's the next stage of the project."

Back at the shelter it's clear the men enjoy the new premises.

They no longer have to sleep in a large dorm room, with 19 beds downstairs spread between several smaller rooms. Seven more beds upstairs will be opened when the trust can get heating installed.

Mr Humphreys said the smaller rooms had brought a lot of new visitors to the shelter.

"A lot of guys didn't want to come in to a dorm because things had happened to them when they were kids. So the smaller rooms definitely help."

While some people might think $1m was a lot of money to spend on a night shelter, Mr Humphreys said there were many positive spinoffs for the community.

"The alternative is what we have here," he said, pointing to an Australian Homeless Pack the trust has just had donated.

The pack is lightweight and opens up to something like a sleeping-bag/tent.

"I'm hesitant to hand them out because it's kind of like saying ‘well it's OK to be sleeping in a plastic bag on the street' when it's not."

Tauranga was also looking to open a shelter given the issues it was having with increasing homelessness in the district.

"They are struggling with the amount of people on the streets over there

a nd the police are finding it really hard and are spending a lot of resources on them, whereas if they were in accommodation they would be a lot healthier.

"People might say $1m is a lot to spend, but the spinoffs for the rest of the population are that these people aren't up at the hospital being treated for a simple ailment they could have treated here and they won't be in the police cells because they were causing a disturbance on the street.

"So it makes a massive difference to the community and saves a lot of money and heartache," Mr Humphreys said.

"Parents don't want to see people sleeping on the streets when they take their children for a walk.

"And every person deserves shelter - it is a basic need."

Those who want to donate to the shelter can do so by depositing money in the following account: ASB Bank, 12-3152-0076868-00.