In from the cold

Rex (not his real name) heads for bushes below First Church where he slept rough for several...
Rex (not his real name) heads for bushes below First Church where he slept rough for several nights late last year. Photo by Craig Baxter

They are united with each other by a lack of other options and with all of us by humanity's frailty. But each of the hundreds of men and women who every year pass through the doors of the Dunedin Night Shelter has their own affecting story. Here are four of them.

His first stint at the Dunedin Night Shelter, late last year, was not his first in the city. Thirty years ago, as a driven young man headed for a lucrative career as an investment adviser, he taught at two high schools in the city and tutored at the university.

Rex (not his real name) grew up in Christchurch. After graduation and teacher training, he taught for three years in Dunedin, married, did a postgraduate diploma at the University of Otago and then worked for the Government as a natural resources adviser.

Rex then wrote and taught an economics course for a polytechnic before beginning a decade in Wellington handling a bank's investment clients.

He owned two houses and travelled overseas two or three times a year.

''I was very much a materialist,'' he says, one hand repeating a nervous twitch every half-minute or so.

''I was very egotistical. I didn't care how I got what I wanted, as long as I got it.''

Seeing him sitting here in baggy, well-worn top and tracksuit pants, the distance between the two realities seems astronomical.

The seeds of his downfall were sown early. He started drinking young, but was sober for long periods, too. Triggers such as work stress and the break-up of his marriage, however, saw him repeatedly reaching for his ''solution''.

When the February 2011 earthquake struck Christchurch, Rex was living in an inner-city backpackers hostel. Several of the Japanese students killed when the CTV building collapsed had also been living at the hostel.

''About a year later, I started hearing their voices and seeing their faces,'' Rex says, tears in his eyes.

''I felt embarrassed so I didn't tell anyone. I thought it would go away, but it didn't. I was drinking heavily because that would make it go away.''

Rex was wearing the same clothes when he arrived in Dunedin in November, a dishevelled suffering alcoholic, homeless but desperate to be in the city should a spot became available on the Salvation Army's residential drug and alcohol addiction Bridge Programme.

After almost a week sleeping rough, it was suggested to him that he try the night shelter.

''I hadn't considered it because I thought it was for people in need,'' he says.

In addition to free meals twice a day, the shelter's real boon was a shower.

''I think I'd been starting to smell.''

He gratefully stayed three weeks either side of the eight-week Bridge programme, which proved transformative.

As well as receiving counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder, he had a spiritual experience during the programme which gave him hope and a new outlook.

''I'm still anti-religion, but I do believe in a higher power.''

Rex is now flatting, attending daily Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and is looking for work.

''I actually feel quite blessed I'm an alcoholic, because this has changed my perspective completely. I now love to help others.''

THREE minutes into the interview, talking to Bobby (not his real name) has become almost impossible.

''How long have you been using those?''

No answer.

''Do you know how long you've been smoking synthetic highs?''

Pause. ''A couple years,'' he replies.

''Have you been using other drugs as well?''

''Hmm.'' A slight nod.

''The Kronic's been quite a strong habit, has it?''

No answer. Bobby is staring straight at me. It is impossible to know whether asking the question again will help or hinder.

It is like talking on a really bad telephone line to someone on the other side of the world.

''You feel you need to use it all the time?''

Long pause. Then, ''What, sorry?''

''The Kronic. You feel the need to use it all the time?''

''Yeah.''

It had started quite well. Bobby, tall, bearded and 34 years old, had ambled into the room accompanied by Dunedin Night Shelter manager Ian McAuliffe.

Introductions, then: ''Where were you born and raised?''

''I was adopted at one week old,'' Bobby replies. ''I never knew my birth mother. I was adopted pretty much as soon as they could organise it.''

Music was his favourite subject at school. Raised on an Otago farm, he wanted to become a contract tractor driver.

The drinking began when he was about 15 and smoking dope when he was 17, he said.

He was not sure what he would do now synthetic cannabis had been made illegal.

By now, questions and answers were drifting further apart.

''How many nights have you spent here at the shelter?''

Pause. ''It's been ...''

Pause.

''Three nights. And three nights last weekend,'' Ian offers.

''I had a flat. The landlord was very particular,'' Bobby says.

''I'd always do the same thing. I'd get paid and I'd go to the Kronic shop. I couldn't control myself. I got asked to leave.''

The remaining questions are mostly answered by Ian, while Bobby sits ... staring.

BEVAN felt like a bit of a fraud staying at the night shelter. Sure, he would have been sleeping rough if that man at the Oval in Princes St had not told him there was a night shelter just up the road.

But he was used to that. Staying here with the likes of a former inmate and a drug addict made him feel like he was ''taking advantage''.

''I'm chuffed, but I don't think I qualify,'' he said.

Bevan (26) was raised in a coastal village in Taranaki.

He got into a few scrapes when he was younger. When he was 20 he blew an astonishing 1200-plus micrograms per litre of breath on a traffic officer's breathalyser, losing his driver's licence permanently. But he learned from his mistakes.

He worked as a butcher, a slaughterman, an arboriculturist and a commercial fisherman. The work took him throughout New Zealand.

Then, in 2012, he was diagnosed with an unusual type of insulin-dependent diabetes. After more than one experience of losing consciousness and being unable to explain, he got a tattoo covering the inside of his right forearm.

''Diabolic diabetic 1.5,'' it declares in no uncertain terms.

Finding his energy levels quickly depleted and told he could no longer work but unwilling to go on the dole, Bevan opted to go bush.

He now spends months at a time in forests around Wanganui and on the South Island West Coast hunting, trapping, fossicking and voluntarily clearing tramping tracks.

He enjoys the time on his own and has his dogs for company when he is up north.

''They don't answer back and they don't ask for smokes all the time,'' he says.

Bevan had begun a hitching circuit of the South Island, on his way to the West Coast, when he lost his wallet last week.

''We had a few beersies in Oamaru. And the next day, when I got to Dunedin I couldn't find my wallet anywhere.''

Without money and looking for cover for the night, he was directed to the night shelter.

''It's been primo. Mean feeds, mean beds and they've been very welcoming,'' he said.

A couple of nights at the shelter gave him time to organise for his bank to send a replacement money card.

The next day he would be on his way.

''They've been great. I hope at some point I can give them something back.''

''MY father was an alcoholic, even though he tells the world he's not,'' Rachel states matter-of-factly.

Rachel is recounting her experience of homelessness, mental illness and the potentially life-saving role played by a Dunedin Night Shelter manager.

''In fact, my father was a raging alcoholic at one stage. And I lost my mother at the age of 9. It wasn't easy,'' the Christchurch-raised 33-year-old says quietly.

As she talks, she is often looking at her lap, remembering how it was, but giving the occasional flash of bright, intelligent eyes.

Rachel made it to the end of sixth form. A loner, but with a surrogate family of like-minded peers. The lurking depression bit hard when her daughter was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

''It was the knowing that every day I had with her was one less day before she died.''

Her daughter died in 2007. Rachel was admitted to hospital and medicated. In 2008, she moved to Picton.

She worked there on fishing boats and as a data analyst. But it was not long before she was in an extremely controlling relationship.

''Being told every day where I can and can't go, what I can and can't do.''

She finally left two months ago, busing to Dunedin for a fresh start and to be closer to where her son was staying with his father.

When the relationship with her Mosgiel host soured after a couple of weeks, Rachel found herself on the street.

''Not knowing anyone or having anywhere to go was really tough.''

For several nights she slept rough, the anxiety and depression mounting.

''It's the mental state that being homeless puts you in that's the worst part.

''I didn't feel like I had anything or anyone. It got to the point where I thought just maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't wake up tomorrow. You know things are really bad when you get to that point.''

Fortunately, she contacted the night shelter and spoke to women's manager Lee-Anne McAuliffe.

''She just made me feel so relieved.

''I actually looked forward to going [to the shelter], not just knowing I now had somewhere to put my head down, but that I would have someone to talk to, which is what I was really longing for ... so I could try and get myself sorted.''

The next morning Lee-Anne took Rachel to Dunedin Hospital's Emergency Psychiatric Services and sat talking to her for about seven hours until she could be seen by a doctor.

The next two weeks were spent in care at Wakari's Ward 9C.

It is now a month since Rachel shifted into a place of her own. Her son has come to live with her.

She is taking daily medication, attending a mental health day programme, and thinking about the future.

''I'm not feeling depressed; it's minimal. Life's in a good place now,'' she says.

''I'm at a stage where I can build my life the way I need to build it. It's a whole new start.''


Gimme shelter

An almost 50% increase in bed-nights is the sort of problem most accommodation providers would love to have. But not the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust.

The trust which provides emergency short-term accommodation has seen a 46% increase in demand during the past 12 months, acting chairman Kevin Tansley says.

''For several months during that period we've had more than 100 bed-nights a month,'' he says.

''We get locals, transients, men, women and children, released prisoners, students thrown out of their flat, men who have suffered from domestic violence ... Every possible combination you can think of, we've probably had one or a dozen through the shelter.''

The trust, founded 10 years ago, does not receive any government funding, relying instead on donations and grants, board member John Le Brun says.

''So in that way, our services can be at risk. Keeping the door open is a monthly challenge,'' he says.

To put its services on a surer footing, the trust wants to buy the inner-city property it rents. The site has two houses; the roadside, five-bedroom night shelter, and, on the back of the property, Phoenix Lodge, which provides short- to medium-term accommodation for people motivated to make changes.

A successful $650,000 fundraising campaign would allow the trust to buy the property and create on-site office space.

Some significant donations have already been pledged. But they are conditional on the campaign gaining support and momentum.

''We are looking for widespread community support from people who are sympathetic to the issue of homelessness in Dunedin,'' Mr Tansley said.

- Want to know more? For more information about the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust's One Bite fundraising campaign visit  www.dunedinnightshelter.co.nz/One_Bite


 


 

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