As I prepare to leave New Zealand to return to my hometown of Seattle, I reflect on some of the innovative programs and people working to address the growing problem of homelessness here in the land of milk and honey (and insanely good chocolate).
Yesterday I had lunch, a terrific soy latte, and community fellowship at Auckland’s Lifewise Merge Cafe on Karangahape (‘K’) Road. Lifewise is an Auckland-based community and social development agency that works on issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, addictions, disabilities, poverty, and homelessness. They provide direct services and also lead advocacy activities. One of their current advocacy campaigns is to urge the New Zealand government to change the age of ‘aging out’ of foster care. Currently, foster care ends on a young person’s 17th birthday; Lifewise is advocating that age to be increased to 21. They have ample evidence to show that this policy change would help many young people avoid ending up living on the streets.
Lifewise operated a soup kitchen for homeless people in Auckland since 1885. By the early part of this century they were serving over 40,000 meals a year. They realized that their soup kitchen was effectively maintaining rather than solving the issue of homelessness. So in late 2012 they closed the soup kitchen and opened the Merge Cafe on K-Road. The Merge Cafe is one of the few community cafes in the world. They say this of the cafe:
“The café aims to support Lifewise’s one-stop-shop approach to tackling homelessness by connecting patrons with wrap around support services that would in turn provide pathways out of homelessness. Secondly, the café aims to provide both the homeless and the housed alike, the opportunity to enjoy meals alongside each other, in an environment that embraced choice, dignity and respect.”
From what I saw, heard, and experienced there yesterday, the Merge Cafe is a success on all these fronts. They have tables set up to be longer community tables, not the typical isolating small tables. I sat next to a Maori middle-aged man, who told me that he had become homeless at age 16 when he ran away from an abusive home in a rural part of the North Island. He then became involved with a gang–“They gave me a sense of family that I didn’t have growing up”–but through outreach from Lifewise workers he got a “real job” and an apartment ten years ago. “I come back here to this cafe because it’s friendly and I remember what it’s like to be homeless.”
The cafe had a cozy corner ‘book nook’ lined with bookshelves full of paperback books and magazines to read in their comfy-looking chairs. A hot lunch consisting of an entree and a vegetable and roll cost $4 NZ ($2.50 US). The cafe was full of people eating and talking and seeming to be from a cross-spectrum of race/ethnicities, and socio-economic levels. People in the all black business suits so common in New Zealand. People in ‘high-viz’ orange vests of the road crews taking their lunch breaks. Flamboyant, paint-splattered artist-types. Jeans-wearing ‘suspiciously social worker-looking’ but laid back staff mingling around. And many familiar faces of the many rough sleepers I’ve seen around downtown Auckland.
The community cafe. What a great concept. Perhaps we should try to create one in the University District in Seattle? A worthwhile Kiwi can-do spirit souvenir to pack in my suitcase and take back home.