City’s homelessness ‘devastating’

Janine Walker and her tiny "security" dog serve soup to the homeless at a caravan at the Oval...
Janine Walker and her tiny "security" dog serve soup to the homeless at a caravan at the Oval yesterday. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Volunteers providing life-saving help to Dunedin’s homeless say a solution must be found to end "devastating" homelessness in the city.

The three local women — Velmay Eliu, Janine Walker and Sammy Russell — are co-ordinating the distribution of essential items and food to about 30 homeless people a week at the Oval on Sunday mornings.

Ms Eliu and other volunteers serve up hot food from a caravan that previously sat idle behind her church.

Ms Walker gives away tents, bedding and items for hygiene, such as toothpaste.

Ms Russell provides full sets of warm clothes.

The women said there had been an influx of people needing their help.

About half the people they helped were living in bushes, doorways or vehicles.

The rest were living in insecure housing, such as garages, couch surfing, or in Dunedin’s grim boarding houses — exposed this month by the Otago Daily Times’ investigation into homelessness Houses of Horror.

The number of people being helped at the Oval each week is a minority of the people across the city who are homeless.

The government definition of homelessness includes people in unsafe housing as well as on the street — among them those in boarding houses or staying with friends because they have nowhere else to go.

Homeless people spoken to by the ODT at the Oval yesterday described insecure, transitory existences.

A woman was sleeping in a van she had borrowed after being evicted from the garage of a student flat.

A man was sleeping under a building near the Octagon — and was hoping to stay at a friend’s house next week.

Homeless people the ODT spoke to at the Oval were not on the register for social housing, saying they were discouraged by waiting lists.

Ms Eliu said she invited homeless people she served to "keep eating until they are full"— then handed over bags of food to eat later.

The bags included meals in takeaway containers that she and other volunteers prepared the night before, as well as sandwiches and fruit.

Ms Eliu said one homeless woman, who lived in nearby bush, did not feel able to approach the caravan, so food was taken to her by the volunteers.

"Some people have not eaten since Friday.

"They say they don’t know anywhere else to get a meal at the weekend," Ms Eliu said.

"It makes me feel devastated.

"I feel for them.

"This is what I can do, so I do it.

"A solution must be found."

Ms Eliu said on several occasions this winter sick homeless people had been driven to hospital by the caravan’s volunteers.

While also studying to be a nurse, Ms Russell runs Sammy’s Care Packages — provision of sets of clothes for the needy.

She collected clothes from the public, checked them for cleanliness, stains and holes, then packaged them up to give away at the Oval, as well as other places during the week.

"For some people, thrift and op shops are too expensive."

Ms Walker, who runs the Dunedin Bedding Bank, said there was a "very big need" for her tents, bedding and hygiene packs.

She knew of two homeless men who had been in hospital with hypothermia this year.

"The streets are very dangerous to live on for many other reasons, too," she added.

"People are beaten up and robbed.

"It’s very nasty out there."

One man had his shoes taken off him while sleeping on a bench in the Octagon, she said.

Ms Walker carried her small dog inside her jacket, presenting a non-threatening face to vulnerable homeless people.

The tiny hound wore a coat humorously labelled "security".

As well as giving away survival items on a Sunday, Ms Walker kept items in her car all the time so she could pull over if she saw a homeless person on the street.

"It is extremely heartbreaking that while we are tucked up in bed people are out there freezing," she said. . PIJF Southern Issues reporter