BOP homeless: ‘We’ve got nowhere to go’

Bedding and belongings piled on the pavement on Goulstone Road have caused loss of custom for several nearby businesses. Photos: Diane McCarthy.

Kopeopeo business people and their customers have had enough of rough sleepers on the footpaths outside their shops – but the people sleeping there say they have nowhere else to go.

As nights get colder, people living on Whakatāne streets are more noticeable than in previous years. Supermarket trolleys full of belongings drawn up beside piles of bedding are visible in many sheltered doorways.

Local Democracy Reporting [The Beacon] spoke to a couple who have been sleeping on the footpath outside shops on Goulstone Road for several weeks. They asked not to be identified. Neither was from the Eastern Bay and had no family connections to the area.

The woman said she was originally from Auckland and her partner from the Cook Islands. She had arrived in Whakatāne about two years ago.

"I was offered a place here, but it was only transitional, so I could only stay a few months and there was nowhere else for me to go after that. I’ve been on the streets about six weeks now. It’s actually really hard. We've got heaps of blankets, but it is getting cold at night.”

They were trying to save for flights to the Cook Islands where her partner had an eight-bedroom house on the island of Atiu, left to him by his parents.

A bed was set up under the veranda of Whakatāne Athletic Club in recent weeks, however, this has now been moved.

Several nearby business owners said some customers would no longer come to their stores because of the rough sleepers. Businesspeople are also concerned about where the couple are toileting.

“I’ve been told they’ve been offered places to stay and they’ve turned them down,” said one business owner who didn’t want to be named. “They want to be there because they like the visibility.”

The couple said this was incorrect. They had sought help from emergency housing agencies but been turned away.

“No one’s offered us anything. Otherwise we would have gone. We’ve got nowhere to go.”

The woman said she used public toilets that were within walking distance and did not touch alcohol or drugs.

Another business person said they had phoned the council and been told it was not a council issue.

As of Tuesday, they had moved away from the businesses to Rex Morpeth Park.

Local Democracy Reporting [The Beacon] spoke to Whakatāne District Council community partnerships manager Frank Begley to find out what, if anything, the council could do about the homeless situation.

Mr Begley said it was a complex issue.

A carport at the former Wally Sutherland Motors yard, now owned by Whakatāne District Council, has become occupied in recent weeks.

“A lot of this is tied up with mental health issues, addiction issues and every other complication, and it's only been exacerbated, I guess, by the economic situation.”

The council did its best to respond to information that was reported to them.

“Our main approach is to speak with them, try to find out what their situation is, see what help they may need, and try to figure out how we may assist them in some way.

“Sometimes, it's not a huge amount that council itself can do. We try to connect them with the service providers that have experience dealing with these issues. If you speak to those agencies, you might find out they actually are working with those people and they've offered a number of services or opportunities. Sometimes people are just not ready to take those opportunities.”

The council advised anyone who saw illegal activity happening, such as drug taking, taking money from school students to purchase vapes or cigarettes for them, and threatening or indecent behaviour, should contact police.

The council’s community safety adviser Richard Hamer agreed. While he encouraged people to inform the council about such incidents, their first call should be to police, at the time it was happening.

He said he was often told about situations, such as human excrement in alleyways, but found little evidence when visiting the site himself.

“Just remember, they are part of our community as well. They are our residents, and they’re probably at the lowest point in their lives,” Mr Hamer said.

A shelter at the rear of the Big Save Furniture building on The Strand has become a makeshift home.

The Salvation Army Church is across the road from where the couple have been sleeping. The couple say have invited them for a cup of tea and offered them showering facilities.

The Salvation Army said it could not discuss individual cases, but community ministries director Corps Officer Lexee Dunlop said, generally, there was always a reason why someone living in the community couldn’t accept support that was offered.

“It’s a matter of finding out what those barriers are. It’s easy to vilify people who are houseless but quite often they need our sympathy and understanding.”

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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