Homelessness is a perplexing issue. Explanations on how people become vulnerable to its grip, or why the problem appears to be growing, are difficult to pinpoint. Unfortunately, in the absence of answers, assumptions tend to rush in, and these assumptions, regrettably, concern the nature of the those in need. Homelessness is, I am sure, a problem that everyone simply wishes would not exist, although solutions to achieve such an end-state seem forlorn. However, regardless of our predispositions on the topic, I believe that many people feel a sense of responsibility when they encounter a homeless person, just as they would if they were to witness a vehicle accident or heart attack. Frustratingly, the kind of help required is not as straightforward as these other scenarios. Fortunately, there are people amongst us in the Canterbury community who have bridged this divide. They have discovered, through their own bravery and endeavour, the answers we are seeking.
Every Wednesday, Tinna Dockerty operates her own small movement, Sisterhood Street Care, for the sole purpose of providing lunch and companionship for whoever chooses to attend. The minute she arrives at Latimer Square, Tinna springs into action. ‘Hello lovelies!’ she shouts at the volunteers who have gathered to help her serve lunch. ‘Right, I need all the tables and chairs set for lunch, the snacks and meals laid out, and the first aid stand established. Quickly, let’s get to it!’ Tinna is not delivering instructions to us, she is ordering herself about. Her fervent demeanour quickly becomes infectious to the volunteers. ‘Where do you want these blankets and clothes, Tinna?’ ‘Oh, just set them over there, and make sure you write on the box that they are free to take, thank you, honey.’ Within moments, everything is neatly established. As if on cue, the first of many weary individuals begins to emerge from the surrounding streets. It becomes immediately apparent how important the hot meals on the tables are. These unfortunate souls look like they haven’t had much to eat this morning. Tinna yells to them, and races around embracing every person who arrives for lunch. ‘Who needs a jacket? A blanket? We have plenty here, please help yourself!’
For two years, Tinna was homeless and addicted to various substances. She managed to break free from poverty, and now exists to aid the people who live in her former predicament. Not only does she provide food each week at her own expense, but will go as far as to act as someone’s advocate in court if they have no one else. ‘People desperately need to rethink the way they view the homeless,’ she tells me. ‘It is more than substance addiction that is forcing people to lose their homes. Many are victims of domestic violence and have nowhere to go. Many simply could not afford to keep up with Christchurch’s rising living expenses, and have chosen to live in their car instead. Most suffer from mental health conditions and have little access to professional treatment.’
Tinna goes on to describe the vicious cycle that these conditions become a catalyst for. ‘These people lack confidence, and want companionship; they experience so much shame and embarrassment in their own existence so they become afraid of seeking employment and begin to lose their sense of purpose.’
‘How can people help?’ I ask. ‘Food and conversation,’ she tells me. ‘Our homeless angels don’t expect anything from anyone, but a small bite to eat and a few moments of your time would really make their day.’ With that, she packs up and races away to prepare the next lot of meals she plans to deliver to the streets that night.
I wander through the gap in the fence and stroll into the area under the bridge with Darren, also from Sisterhood Street Care. Through the noise of the traffic overhead reverberating through the concrete structure, Darren shouts, ‘It’s Darren, from Sisterhood Street Care, is anyone here?’ He pokes his eyes around each concrete beam, but we find nothing but evidence of squalid living conditions.
Makeshift stretchers act as beds, surrounded by a juxtaposition of cigarette packets and nicotine pills. Rubbish is strewn about the dirt floor. ‘This is about as bad as it gets,’ Darren tells me, his eyes downcast. Three times a week, Darren circumnavigates Christchurch CBD in search of anyone who has been unable to find shelter. As a qualified physiotherapist, Darren also provides free treatment at Sisterhood Street Care and City Mission
We move on to the next location. The trunk of Darren’s car is full of sleeping bags, clothing and food that he plans to deliver to whoever is in need. Suddenly pulling the car over, he points across the street. ‘That’s Trevor, I see him regularly.’ He hops out and opens the trunk. ‘Want some coffee, mate?’ he shouts across the road. Whilst preparing the coffee, a young woman shyly appears.
‘Hi Angelica, would you like some coffee also?’ ‘Yes please, but could I have two? My boyfriend is here as well. Oh, and have you got any spare socks?’ Darren prepares the drinks and hands Angelica a couple of pairs of new socks; a grateful beam spreads across her face. As we drive away, I ask his opinion on the situation of each person we encounter. ‘It’s difficult to explain why they choose to live here. I see evidence of drug addiction and mental illness in everyone, but I just have to keep trying to be there for them.’
A tap at the window interrupts our conversation; a boy, no older than 18, peers into the car. Trevor appears behind him. ‘Sorry, Darren, I forgot to mention, this lad needs a sleeping bag. Have you got any?’ I am charged with fishing one out of the back, passing a brand new sleeping bag to the young lad. He smiles, and moves along quickly. ‘I’ve never seen him before.’ Darren’s concerned look follows the boy. Another mouth to feed might have just moved onto the block.
Ginny Rhodes meets me at the door of Dress for Success. Embarrassingly, I am a fraction late for our interview, which has meant that my arrival has coincided with the early arrival of a client. Ginny ushers me inside and discreetly shuts the door behind us. ‘We try to avoid having men on the premises during fitting times, so we will try to keep you out of sight.’
Dress for Success is a community-funded non-profit organisation dedicated to helping women find economic independence through the provision of career development tools and professional work attire. Ginny and her team of volunteers spend approximately an hour helping every client select a new professional wardrobe and then follow on with career coaching, including interview preparation and advice on appropriate workplace relationships. ‘Some women arrive to us with nothing but the clothes on their back,’ Ginny tells me. ‘But our mission is to give them so much more than just new clothes. We need to ensure they leave us with a greater sense of self-esteem than what they had when they arrived.’
This is, however, tricky for Ginny’s team to achieve at times due to several circumstances. Many of their clients are living a life of extreme economic hardship, and, as Tinna mentioned to me, have been afraid of seeking employment due to a severe lack of self-confidence. Moreover, some clients are also recent victims of domestic abuse at the hands of a partner, making Ginny’s caution with my presence more apparent as she explains further. ‘We once had a client, referred to us from the women’s refuge, who was running late to her appointment with us. When she did arrive, we discovered that she had walked three hours with a broken rib that she had suffered as a result of recent domestic abuse.’ This woman had a job interview the very next day. Out of pure determination to find employment, she battled through the pain in order to prepare herself with Ginny’s team. ‘She got that job,’ Ginny reassures me. ‘And, of course, we drove her home.’
Dress for Success is fundamentally reliant on community sponsorship and volunteer support. Donations of clothing and the dedicated team of volunteers allows Ginny to remain confident that this cycle of poverty can be broken. To date, Dress for Success has supported over 4500 local women, and Ginny assures me of her team’s enthusiasm to help more. ‘When we make an important change in the life of a client, we share her excitement. We are always looking for where we can make an impact next.’
Although the collective effort of these incredible individuals ought to be inspiring to anyone, one fundamental and, ultimately, conclusive question remains unanswered: will our subjects find themselves, another year from now, still combating the revolving door of poverty to no relative progress or avail? This is, of course, an extremely difficult question to answer.
However, through a personal anecdote, I will attempt to deliver a reassuring prediction. Walking to a grocery store on a winter’s night in Christchurch, I stumbled upon a young, homeless gentleman seated next to a skip bin. Asking him whether he had been able to eat anything that evening, to which he responded that he had not, I included some extra food items in my shopping and delivered them to him. After briefly peering into the contents of the bag, he immediately rushed to the back of the skip bin, to a corner I had not previously seen, and gave the food to an older gentleman sitting under some blankets. This man was clearly hungry and, from the sound of his coughing, suffering from a cold. He sat with his friend and prepared to endure the night together. It was at this moment that I realised something: impoverished people truly understand, perhaps better than anyone else, the true meaning of benevolence. If they are accepting personal sacrifice by actively seeking ways to improve the quality of life of their peers, I believe they also see the conquerable nature of their own living situation; they are just going to need some assistance along the way.
Regardless of the success status of our subjects, and their respective missions, they surely stand as vessels through which we can discover how to engage with this issue. They are the bridge that spans the crevice of our conflicting convictions.
Capturing and documenting the work of all who are striving to make poverty history, in Christchurch alone, is vitally essential, but impossible to achieve in a single article. Therefore, we will be publishing a series of online continuation articles. Follow latitude online to stay updated.
Words & Images Isaac McCarthy