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Saturday, 25 November 2017 11:07 am

Stephanie McIntyre knows the many colours of homelessness

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GREAT WORK: Stephanie McIntyre makes a difference in the lives of Wellingtonians every day

DRAPED an outsized fuchsia coat, Linda Nelson has been chatting to the do-it-all receptionist as she waits for Downtown Community Ministry’s morning tea.

“Of course I know Stephanie,” she says of the organisation’s director, Stephanie McIntyre. “She’s lovely. She says hello and is friendly to me, it means a lot.” Linda looks around and says hi to a man hobbling through the doors.

“Stephanie deals with any nonsense that’s happening,” continued Linda. “If anybody annoys you she’s good at coming out and rescuing you, getting you away from that person. She’s real nice.”

Ms Nelson is one of the hundreds of citizens battling with poverty or homelessness that have walked through the doors of DCM each year. Last year alone, 850 Wellingtonians went to DCM for support. Stephanie McIntyre, despite leading the organisation, talking to media and organising staff, knows all of them by name.

For 10 years Ms McIntyre has worked in the heart of the city, trying to break the stereotype of homelessness by working alongside them. “People may not be aware that we really do have homelessness in our midst in Wellington,” she says.

In her role, Stephanie petitions for people who have no adequate or permanent home in Wellington. She has asked mayoral candidates to share their perceptions (or stereotypes) of the homeless, standing up for those who she believes simply got the short end of the stick in life. She thinks people – including the mayoral candidates – have been sucked into envisaging a stereotype that only reflects a small percentage of the homeless. But she doesn’t blame them (or you) for thinking that – it’s a stereotype she sees spread on a daily basis in the media.

“People often do imagine the typical idea of a homeless person on a park bench, but what a lot of people don’t realise is that at least one quarter of all those homeless in NZ are children. I think that’s quite shocking for women to realise, especially women who are mothers. It is serious, and it’s being driven by a lack of adequate housing in NZ.

As the director of Downtown Community Ministry, Stephanie has gained enormous respect for people who have it tough. “They are people who I think make the most enormous achievements. The changes in the lives of the people I meet here far outstrips that of myself and my peers who have had a more stable upbringing and who are apparently and superficially more successful – but working off a different base level.”

She has also gained hands-on understanding about the real nature of homelessness. “Our daily work is to try and get underneath a story and find out what’s really going on.

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REAL CHANGE: Homelessness is more than just what can be seen on the streets

The caring pain in her eyes is clear when she talks about people whose lives take them to DCM. “It would make you weep to hear many of the stories here,” she says, hands clasped tightly in front of her. “We’ve got people coming in here who as little kids were put into foster care, introduced to drugs and alcohol and sometimes became alcohol and drug dependent by the age of twelve, using cannabis and other drugs.

“Sometimes their caregiver gave it to them. Some have experienced violence and abuse, a lack of consistent schooling and unaddressed health problems such as glue ear –liquid in children’s ears causing hearing loss – and other hearing problems.”

A woman she now knows well used to be homeless and living on the streets of Wellington as a 13-year-old. She had run away from home, been expelled from school and blamed herself for it.

“As a little girl, she went into foster care because of violence in their home. Sometime later she went to live back at home – but her mum was in a difference relationship and there was violence there too.” Her passion fills the room. Petitioning for the girl, she says those circumstances were probably what was what was behind her failing at school and running away.

“That’s the story for many people.”

With people being raised alcohol and drug dependent, she says you really can’t look at the adult and blame them. “Yes, they may have been in jail, yes, they may have committed quite violent crime as adults, but this is a place for new beginnings and for them to be accepted.”

Stephanie, in her 50s, hasn’t always worked within such a charitable environment. Back in the day, when she was married to a musician, she managed bands. However, as a devout Christian, she always wanted to put her beliefs of social justice in action. With a background in counselling and more and more involvement with her church, she eventually became the social justice commissioner for the Anglican Church. She also co-founded ‘GamblingWatch’, a community network that equips people to oppose gambling in their local communities.

It was at the turn of the century when Stephanie started taking notice of homelessness. On a scholarship to a theological college in Boston, she attended a weekly communion for homeless people.

Upon returning to New Zealand, she began seeing that homelessness exists too in New Zealand, hidden in the nooks and crannies of society. The position at DCM seemed a perfect jump from policy work to hands-on work out in the community.

Now, she leads a team doing various things to help people get back on their feet and in a healthy home. This involves many things – helping people reconnect with their children, address their debt, get a house and work on their dependency and addiction issues. Other things often include getting their drivers license, and learning to read.

Because over half of the people who come in for help at DCM are Maori, Stephanie says it has been important in rehabilitation to help people reconnect with their cultural identity

“What does that tell us about what has happened here in Aotearoa?” she asks regretfully.  “It’s a tragic outcome – that Maori are so much more likely to be poor.”

People need to have something to be proud of, and she feels the lack of New Zealand history from a Maori perspective has damaging effects. “The Maori arrived here first by navigating their way across the Pacific. People think what the Vikings did going across the North Sea was incredible but that’s got nothing on what Kupe and that lot were up to. They were going to South America and travelling phenomenal distances, by using the stars and patterns of nature.”

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HANDS ON: Stephanie helps at a food drive in Chaffers New World

Seeing everyone as equals, Stephanie speaks emphatically of her love of the people she works with. “The job is impacting on a number of levels,” she says. “It’s a fascinating, enjoyable and rich place to spend my days. It’s deeply satisfying. It completely changes your perspective.”

Now, walking through the city, Stephanie can’t help but keep her eyes open for the people who are ‘in the margins’. “Often I’ll stop and chat when I see people street begging that I know from coming through here.”

Matthew Mawkes is someone who knows this feeling well. He is the one who interacts with everyone as they walk through the doors, and finds it amazing that Stephanie still knows people as well as he does. “It takes a really special set of skills to be able to do what she does,” he says. “She’s got great people skills and connects with people one-on-one, and on the other side of the coin she’s a really great leader.” He says it’s “cool” that despite being the director, she is still usually the first one to notice an issue people are having.

Stephanie’s plight for ending homelessness doesn’t stop when she leaves the doors of the Ministry. It’s a political battle she’s fighting too, and unfortunately, she says, the current government doesn’t acknowledge that there is a definition of homelessness. “Saying there is no definition diminishes obligation to do something about homelessness,” she says.  There aren’t many things that frustrate this determined woman, but this evasion of responsibility does.

“I think people would be shocked to know the reality of how desperately poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged people are when they are at the tougher end of things. We really have got that in our midst in NZ and in Wellington.”

In 2009, Statistics New Zealand developed New Zealand’s own official definition of homelessness. A broad definition, it includes beyond people without shelter those living in temporary accommodation or inadequate accommodation, such as places without running water, and people living in seriously overcrowded situations.

“It’s changed me,” Stephanie states with certainty. “I don’t think it’s possible to work in an environment like this and for it not to have a profound effect. It’s helped me see how complex things are, that it’s impossible to reduce things down to sound bites and “one size fits all” responses.

“Ending homelessness does begin with people literally getting a home, and that’s vital. But actually there are a lot of other things around wellness that should be addressed.

***

The vacuum has stopped, leaving only colourful chatter in the waiting room. Stephanie walks through the door, talking to someone. She pauses to greet Linda, thanking her again for the beautiful artwork.

Linda turns to me, a delighted smile stretching across her face. She points to a painting on the wall, colours splotched together to create an abstract ocean and sky-scape. “I did that,” she beams.

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is a journalism student at Whitireia. She previously studied at the University of Idaho and has a degree in Anthropology and International Studies.
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  1. What is goodness name is DCM? If you are going to use an acronym for an organization surely you should write the full name first so the reader knows which organization you are referring to?

  2. Amended – thanks for pointing out.

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