Woman with a big heart for Wellington’s homeless
What happens to the homeless at night? JESSICA DIXON looks behind the scenes of a Wellington Good Samaritan organisation that tries to keep the hurt, the abused and the needy off the city’s streets.
DEBBIE was 23 when she moved to Wellington. She got into the drug scene and soon began dealing for a living. After three years she was arrested and put away for 18 months.
Once released she was lucky enough to find a job filing for a lawyer in the city, but soon her drinking got out of hand and it grew from a casual habit to a serious problem.
“I started to put everything I had into buying more alcohol and very soon I had nothing left to pay my rent.”
Debbie moved out and lived on the streets sleeping wherever she could. This continued for two years before getting assistance from the Downtown Community Ministry.
Debbie is one of many people with similar stories who are living right here in Wellington. People, who when thought they had nowhere else to go, ended up at the Ministry, a place that has supported them through some of the hardest times in their lives.
Stephanie McIntyre (pictured above, right) is the woman behind the centre, the one who holds it all together and makes sure that they are doing the best that they can for everyone who walks through the door.
This year will be her fifth year managing the Ministry, whose prime responsibility is helping and supporting those in need. As well as making sure the organisation meets the needs out there, she works to ensure it will still be around in another 20 years.
Stephanie, in her early 50s, managed bands in her earlier life when she was married to a musician. So why has she now chosen to work with the homeless?
She says she has always been interested in positive social change that results in better outcomes for poor New Zealanders. “It’s in my experience that things aren’t stacked in favour of the poor and disadvantaged. I feel that for a person like me, who’s from a background of privilege, education and opportunities, it’s sort of our calling.”
In 2000, Stephanie received a scholarship to go to a theological college in Boston. Each week, a communion service was held for the Boston common (homeless people), and around 200 rough sleepers would attend the service, whether in searing sun or snow.
“This was the first time I started thinking about homelessness as an issue. When I came back, I found that homelessness was a big problem in New Zealand and the number one problem for people using this organisation. I was ready to move from social policy to more practical services.”
The Downtown Community Ministry was set up 40 years ago by a group of city churches. Hundreds of people come through each week for many different reasons. It provides a food bank, support and advocacy for people with benefits and other problems.
The organisation acts as a benefit agent for people who don’t have or can’t manage a bank account. At any given time, between 60 and 80 people use it as a bank, while learning about money management.
Wellington City Council has a contract with the centre to address homelessness in the city. The Ministry has found homes for more than 250 rough sleepers in the past three years.
Rough sleeping includes anyone who sleeps on the street, park benches or in gardens. However, homelessness is a much bigger issue than rough sleeping, says Stephanie. “Most homeless people are hidden, as in they are couch surfing or living in backpackers or in a lodge situation. This is really a homeless person because they don’t have adequate housing. They might not be as desperate as a rough sleeper, but they’re still struggling.”
Stephanie doesn’t promote a pragmatic response to people who come into the centre, but prefers a more time-generous way of working with people. She says the Ministry needs to find out about each person to work towards what they need as an individual.
“We have people who I first met when they were rough sleeping. Now they have a flat, a job and can save money. We are really proud of them, and I think these are much bigger achievements than someone coming from a privileged home making it to university. It may not look like much, but it’s phenomenal.”
Earlier in life, Stephanie was a social justice commissioner for the Anglican Church and before this she had a background in counselling. Despite the fact she is not the best church attendee now, she believes church has influenced her views on disadvantaged people.
Stephanie says within radical Christian theology there’s a strong body of thinking around social justice. “I think ultimately whatever people understand God to be, he has a special interest in the poor, and I guess that’s what drives my analysis and thinking.”
Stephanie enjoys her work enormously, but that’s not to say some days she is not nearly exploding with stress. “It’s certainly not mundane. Anything can walk through the door.”
She says the risk with working in an agency like hers is that staff can get caught up working in crisis situations only, but these have to go alongside day-to-day things, as well. “It can be buzzy and exciting, but you have got to stay thinking about the long term so you don’t get caught up.”
Where does Stephanie get her compassion for the homeless? She says it comes from hearing other people’s stories. “If any of us took the time, and were open to hearing people’s stories, we would just be blown away by what they have had to deal with.”
She says most people are shocked by the abuse they see in the media, such as when a child is abused or killed by their family, but many who come into the centre are survivors from that sort of abuse.
“I wish we could maintain that sort of heartache for adults, for people who come from that sort of background and stop being so judgmental of them.”
She believes information is the key to understanding, and when people reduce things to a story they see in the paper or on TV, they don’t get the full picture. “That’s were the issues get clouded and you can’t reduce it down to a simplistic analysis. These are real people who terrible things have happened to. It’s not so difficult to understand that when you’re engaging with it day to day.”
Debbie was one of those people. Today, she can’t believe how things have changed for her since meeting Stephanie and the other staff at the centre. She says the support she received from all the staff was great. They were non-judgemental, empathetic and she never felt belittled. They made her feel like a real person.
She is holding down employment for the first time in 20 years and is enjoying being able to spend time with her children. “I’m feeling contentment in my life and have hope for the future. I’ve never felt this way before, but it’s true.”
Stephanie says the goals she works towards each day are what drive her work, which consists of dealing with people who are disadvantaged, who come from shocking early beginnings, have backgrounds in drugs and criminal offending and have “failed” in societal terms.
“We try to be reconciling, forgiving, and generous, to encourage people to make steps towards meeting their own goals.”