News | 17 August 2021

Supporting our city’s rough sleepers into shelter

Timmy remembers the last time he had his own place. A permanent roof over his head.

“I was 22, in a relationship, had a job. Felt like I was on top of the world.”

A woman in a clack coat and colourful scarf standing next to a man with long black curly hair and an orange jacket and blue jeans, in front of a bright blue, red and orange building.
Natalia Cleland, of DCM, and Paulo Fuiono, Community Safety Team Leader at Wellington City Council.

It’s Thursday, 6.30am, still dark, and Timmy is sitting on a park bench on lower Cuba Street.

He tells Natalia Cleland he can sleep anywhere these days – anywhere, in any weather.

“I’ve been living on the streets since I was 14-years-old. I’m still on the streets at 39. But that’s how I choose to live.”

Timmy is not the first person Natalia has stopped to chat to on this pleasant winter Wellington morning.

She’s already had interactions with a man asleep in a bus stop, and several female streets beggars.

She’s also already walked 5km around Wellington’s CBD – counting its rough sleepers.

This is a monthly ritual for Natalia, the Outreach Leader at DCM, a non-government organisation that has the tagline: Together, we can end homelessness.

A partner agency and key supporter of DCM, Wellington City Council leads the monthly Rough Sleeper Audit.

So joining Natalia for the 5.30am start and 7km circuit is Wellington City Council’s Community Safety Team Leader Paulo Fuiono. Clifton is also along for the count – learning the ropes, and the route, for when he takes over the duty from Natalia next month.

And if anyone can vouch for the meaningful work DCM does, Clifton can.

He was homeless for 18 months – living in his car while maintaining a fulltime job – before leaving Auckland for Wellington.

Not long after arriving in the capital, Clifton was put into emergency housing through Work and Income.

“I was trying to reach out for services for food,” he explains. “I was in my accommodation and picked up a leaflet off the floor. It was for DCM. So, the next day I called them up.

“Now I’m working with them – helping people where I used to be. It’s really good soul food. There’s no turning back now.”

Clifton says there’s a common misconception that every person sleeping on the street is there as a result of addiction, but this is not always the case.

“All of them have a story.”

Clifton is now a trained peer support worker, or kaiawhina, and clearly proud of the direction his life has taken.

“I’ve found my calling.”

He says his past experience helps him to meaningfully connect with taumai - the word DCM uses to describe those they support, or clients.

A young man doing the thumbs up in the early morning light, standing in front of a red waharoa, a Maori carved entranceway into the Wellington soup kitchen.
Clifton has found his calling working as a kaiawhina for DCM.

By 6am, the team has covered Courtenay Place, Waitangi Park, and the length of the waterfront.

At this point they’ve counted four rough sleepers – four blankety mounds spaced out in a row, nestled in the Whairepo Lagoon area.

Past Queens Wharf, the team check for life inside the public ‘lobster’ toilets. Clifton notes how they’re “always quite warm”, making them an attractive place to stay. They are often occupied during these rough sleeper counts, but on this morning they’re empty.

Help is there, but not everyone wants it... yet

The team make their way through the Railway Station and to the Bus Terminal. This is where Natalia comes across a man asleep in a seated position, on a bench in a green sleeping bag. He’s elderly, and known to her, and is someone she says the younger rough sleepers worry about.

“There are people living on the street who are almost like his peer workers. They are looking out for him. He’s old and unwell and they really worry about him.”

Natalia says she and her team often ask him if he wants help into accommodation, or to connect with the outreach nurses through Te Aro Health. He doesn’t – yet.

“But if he said yes, he’d be in emergency housing tonight,” she says.

Declining help is the case with some rough sleepers, Natalia explains. And those who do take up the offer for housing are sometimes back on the street a short time later.

“When this happens, it’s not necessarily considered a failure. It’s indicative of the ingrained nature of the people who are rough sleepers.

“I think sometimes it’s a bit frustrating because you put all this work in to get them into a house, but if people have been sleeping for years and years on the street, the transition to housing is a big change.

“They need to adjust to it slowly. They probably aren’t going to sleep on the bed, they’re going to sleep on the floor, and actually, they don’t need power straight away because they’re not used to having it in the first place.

“That’s where individual plans are created with the taumai, so that we prioritise supporting them with the things they say are important to them, which may differ to the things we assume are most important.” 

Wellington City Council fund part of DCM’s Sustaining Tenancies service and are engaged with the Aro Mai Housing First Collaboration. Natalia says both of these services support these vulnerable tenants, who are at risk of going back to homelessness, to sustain their permanent housing and to thrive.

Natalia says providing wrap-around support services to those who go into housing is vital for a long-term positive outcome. And DCM and Wellington City Council work closely with other government agencies and community organisations to ensure this happens.

Along Lambton Quay as early birds make their way to work, a couple of street beggars have set up shop. Natalia knows them by name, knows their stories. She says both women are in housing – as are most of the people we see asking for food and money on the street.

“We’ll ask them if they are getting all their entitlements, whether they have any food grants left, check in with them about that sort of thing.

A man and a woman standing in a brightly-lit, spacious public toilet cubicle, with a man in an orange jacket holding the door open.
Paulo, left, Clifton, and Natalia checking for rough sleepers in the public toilets on Wellington Waterfront.

“A lot of the time those who are housed are poorer than those who aren’t because they have more overheads – rent, power, food – and often they are bored and lonely. It’s social interaction, something for them to do, something to get up for.”

To address this issue of loneliness and social isolation, DCM last year started a community connections service in several Wellington suburbs to support people in building relationships within their own neighbourhoods.

Rough sleeper and street beggar figures in decline

Natalia says the number of people street begging has reduced, alongside rough sleeping figures, over the past few years. Street beggars are not included in the monthly rough sleeping audit – that’s a separate audit carried out by Wellington City Council.

She says DCM can help street beggars find appropriate support and alternative opportunities, however many choose to continue to beg because of the donations they receive.

“This is not mana enhancing for them. They have more value than sitting on the street. If we keep feeding and giving money to them then we are reenforcing their decision to keep doing it – it’s a very short-term solution.”

“We’ve got the food, tea and coffee, and access to Work and Income and health services at DCM, so we want them to come and see us.”

DCM is located along Lukes Lane, meaning taumai are just a minute’s walk from Wellington City Council’s new community support space in Manners Street, Te Wāhi Āwhina, which was launched as part of the Pōneke Promise.

After a stroll along Manners Street and a chat to long-time rough sleeper Timmy on Cuba Street, the team make their way through Pukeahu National War Memorial Park and then down Tory Street.

Here they meet Carl, almost 65, neatly dressed and laughing. He’s outside the Home of Compassion soup kitchen, about to head inside for breakfast.

Carl eyes the team approaching the soup kitchen.

“Natalia, you’ve fallen on hard times,” he jokes.

He tells her he was one the people in slumber in the lagoon area, where he has been sleeping for about five years now.

“The other three [rough sleepers] turned up, and I thought ‘there goes the neighbourhood’. I told the other guys to keep it clean.”

As well as respecting his environment, Carl take pride in his appearance. He doesn’t receive any government benefits, and has been declining offers of help into housing for years. However, as he’s gotten older, he’s started to come around to the idea of moving inside and sleeping in a bed, Natalia says.

“We’ve got to get this idea out of our heads that people don’t want to be housed.  For us at DCM, when people say they don’t want housing, we see that as them saying ’not yet‘ rather than ’never’. So we’ll persevere in building our relationship with them with the expectation that they will start to see the idea of a permanent home as something they want.”

Carl is one of the five rough sleepers counted this particular morning. Rewind two years, and this figure would more likely have been in the mid-teens. April 2021 saw three rough sleepers, while April 2019 saw 16.

Paulo says this reduction in numbers is likely down to the collaborative cross agency approach to addressing homelessness in Wellington which involves NGO’s, government organisations and Council.

He says Council’s Community Services Team and partner agencies are taking a holistic and collaborative approach, guided by the Council’s Te Mahana Homelessness Strategy, which weaves international best practice with culturally-specific steps.

“We will continue to work together with our partners and our community to support those who are vulnerable and to ensure they have access to services.”

Find out what the Council is doing about homelessness and begging in Wellington city.