It was my bones that hurt the most. There’s nothing like sleeping on a thin piece of cardboard to teach you that possessing knees, hips and elbows can be an awkward exercise. My heart came in at a close second. It had broken in two whilst listening to 21-year-old Rika’s story.
Rika, a young woman who had “a normal upbringing” and went to “a good school”, found herself homeless, pregnant and addicted to drugs. A chain of events, including sexual abuse, mental health issues and her parents’ divorce, had sent her life into a tailspin. She found it impossible to trust people; as she put it, she had no one to turn to who was “trustworthy”.
A chance encounter with someone who “made themself trustworthy” (her now-fiancé) allowed Rika to get the help she needed. He took her to Lifewise, an organisation committed to ending homelessness, and with their support she began to turn her life around. Today she has a home, and a family. Her story of homelessness had a happy ending, and now she has a new beginning.
There are 15,000 people in Auckland alone who are homeless. ‘Severely housing-deprived’ is the official terminology. Every year, 30,000 New Zealanders find themselves with no option to acquire safe and secure housing. With the worsening housing shortage and soaring rental prices, these numbers are projected to increase.
Every year, Lifewise holds The Big Sleepout, a night spent out in the cold huddled in sleeping bags on the concrete. Influential New Zealanders and corporate teams come together to raise money to help to get people off the streets, out of tents and off acquaintances’ couches, and into permanent housing. This year, I was one of those 138 people, along with Labour MP (and Villainesse columnist) Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie, Flava host Pete Marsden and numerous others. To say that it was eye opening would be an understatement.
I like to think that I’m fairly aware of just how privileged I am. I try my best to live a life full of empathy and compassion. But compassion has nothing on cold, hard experience. I had no idea how tired I would be after spending a night tossing and turning out in the urban jungle. Did you know that your thigh throbs if you lie on one side for too long? Or that the temperature drops bitterly at around 4am? Or that sleeping with a group of strangers can make you almost cling to the few people you know?
We slept in the quad at AUT, all of us scrambling to find the most sheltered positions. It was the safest, most well organised sleepover you could possibly imagine. Security guards and Lifewise staff on duty all night, dinner and breakfast served in the whare kai, and 138 sheets of screen-printed cardboard, complete with personalised messages (mine said “we’re expecting sweet lullabies all night”). It was a far cry from the reality of truly sleeping rough, but it was more powerful than I could ever have predicted.
As I lay there under the cloudy sky I thought about how lucky I am, not only to have a place to call home, but to have a constant support network of friends, family and colleagues, a career, a life free of domestic violence; to have had the resources to seek treatment for my depression, and to have agency over my life. Our problems and the challenges that we face are, of course, relative, but lying there with nothing but the big dark sky above me certainly put things into perspective.
Some people will say that homelessness is a choice. It frees us from responsibility if those who are vulnerable have chosen to be so of their own accord. But the ‘choice’ is often between staying in a home environment where you’re being physically or sexually abused and taking your chances on the streets. It’s certainly a decision I wouldn’t like to have to make. And that’s without taking into account the 16% of homeless people who suffer from mental illnesses, the young people turfed out of state care when they hit age 17, and the people whose lives, for whatever reason, have spiralled out of control. “Homelessness can happen to anyone,” Rika said.
Lifewise has a goal to end homelessness. They follow the internationally supported model of ‘housing first’, prioritising getting people into permanent accommodation, then wrapping support services around them. As Rika explained, it can be hard to adjust to having a place to call home. Simple things like learning how to pay the bills and saving enough money to buy a bed or even a toaster can be daunting. Lifewise helps to make that process easier. And the $269,000 raised on Thursday night will help to make their jobs easier.
In an age with almost weekly appeals for countless charities, fundraisers come and go in a blur. Sleeping rough with a bunch of strangers was the antithesis of another gala dinner at a 5-star hotel. But the impact, like the tiredness, has stayed with me all day; washing over me in waves and reminding me of the responsibility we all have to look after each other. I may only have been ‘homeless’ for one short night, but that night will stay with me forever.
If you’d like to donate to Lifewise, the Big Sleepout site will remain active until the end of July 2015.