Homeless, drug addicts and mentally unwell: How Bay of Plenty’s Lifewise is saving lives

Homeless, drug addicted and mentally unwell. These are among the biggest issues on the lips of locals today. But behind a modest fence and mature shrubs on Tarewa Rd in Rotorua, there’s a bunch of little houses filled with big-hearted workers who are making a real difference. Journalist Kelly Makiha becomes part of the Lifewise whānau to find out how they are saving lives and turning around our most desperate locals.

Joseph Pearless sits in a room surrounded by the people who saved his life. He lifts his head and simply says “thank you”.

Just seven months earlier the Tauranga man was gripped by addiction to alcohol and methamphetamine, was homeless and saw no way out. So he tried to kill himself.

His lifesavers were the team at Lifewise in Rotorua.

If you look at Pearless, you wouldn’t imagine his life had been in such turmoil.

He’s clean-cut, well-spoken and has an impressive background including completing a building qualification, a firefighting qualification and doing a stint in the army.

Life was ticking along perfectly for the 31-year-old, but then addiction set in. It started with alcohol and ended with a methamphetamine habit that cost him $400 a day.

He gambled online to keep his head above water but eventually lost everything – his home, his possessions, his family and his friends.

To get away from Tauranga, he came to Rotorua in his car which became his home.

“Towards the end, you’re chasing something that’s not even there and [P] doesn’t do anything so you end up using more and more.”

Then one day, he wanted it all to end – all the pain to go away.

After his attempt on his life, Rotorua Hospital staff referred him to Lifewise.

The Rotorua Daily Post was invited to one of Lifewise’s group sessions recently where Pearless told his story.

Many of those sitting around the warm and friendly circle knew about Pearless and his struggles and some had helped him break out of that dark place.

But that didn’t make his kōrero any less powerful. Tears flowed. And when he finished, the staff said they felt a sense of accomplishment knowing they were on the right track with helping people like Pearless.

The facility on Tarewa Rd in Rotorua offers live-in support to high-end sufferers of drug and alcohol addiction and mental unwellness.

For Pearless, it provided a place where he could detox for four months, gather his thoughts and sought himself mentally and physically.

“I didn’t know a place like Lifewise actually existed but it was just through luck and through a nice system and Te Utuhina Manaakitanga Trust they found me a spot here. I was in pre-treatment for four months and it gave me a solid amount of time. It kept me off the streets, out of my car and away from the temptations of drugs and alcohol.”

He said when you’re in the early stages of being sober, temptation often called.

“I am blessed I was able to be in this place. The opposite to addiction is connection and that is what I have found here. I had lost all connection but every single person here has been so kind and full of love. It fully rebuilt my trust in humanity really.”

Pearless spent four months at Lifewise detoxing and preparing for the Salvation Army Bridge Centre in Hamilton – a live-in rehabilitation centre.

“That four months I was definitely rocky. I had a lot of highs and a lot of lows at the same time. I was quite unstable but I knew I was able to reach out to any of the staff and that made all the difference really. The Bridge I speak quite highly of also. But I really needed that four months leading up to the Bridge to go into rehabilitation with a clear head and a clear mind to gain the tools properly.”

He said others at the Bridge who only had a week’s worth of detox found it hard.

Pearless smiles shyly when he talks about how he’s feeling now.

“I am so much more positive today than I was seven months ago. I am starting to rebuild connections with my family again. I speak so highly of Lifewise, it’s given me a second chance with life really. It’s something I’ve learned in my sobriety that I do deserve a good life.”

Now Pearless wants to focus on a future where he helps those who have walked in his shoes.

He’s applied for a level four qualification in health and wellbeing leading into mental health and addiction services.

“I think it’ll give me more insight into my addictions but will lead me to the possibility of helping others like me. It will benefit me in staying sober by giving back.”

Then one day he too might be able to be a life safer, just like those at Lifewise.

Toni tells her story

Having somewhere to go where she is safe and not judged is what saved Rotorua’s Toni Kakau.

She found that support at Rotorua’s Lifewise and is no longer homeless, is clean from drugs and has won back the care of her children.

Kakau has been supported through Lifewise’s Housing First arm, which supports those in need into permanent housing.

After going through drug and alcohol rehabilitation with Te Utuhina Manaakitanga Trust, she became homeless so was referred to Lifewise.

“I had nowhere to go. The whareora couldn’t sign me off unless I had somewhere to go.”

Her voice waivers when she recounts what Lifewise did for her.

“I had no idea what this place was about and what I was about to learn. Their support when I came out, it was a gift from God. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them being there and letting me know I was safe. If I didn’t have a safe place to go I would have gone back out and used again.”

Kakau spent a few weeks with Lifewise before meeting Lifewise’s Housing First team leader, Gillian Tangi.

“Along with her colleagues they assured me they would find me a place to stay. I don’t know how she did it but she got me a house and I got my kids back the same day I moved in … That’s a pretty good feat to get your kids back from Oranga Tamariki in 10 months. I credit that to Housing First and Lifewise.”

Knowing that support would always be there came in handy. Kakau stumbled and used again along the way. But the important part was, she didn’t fall.

“I had a bit of a spill and relapsed for about a month but I asked for help and I wasn’t being judged. They want me to succeed. For that, I will always be grateful.

“It takes a lot for an addict to trust anybody so to find that within these walls, that’s definitely a God job. It’s not something you find every day.

“They are still there for me today. During Covid, they kept me and my kids warm, they gave me firewood, they gave me cleaning products. The two Christmases I’ve had so far have been awesome. My cupboards are full. That’s all any mother would want for their kids is a roof and food in the cupboards and power on. I got that today because of these people who were strangers to me two years ago and now I feel like I am part of their family.”

Kakau is now in her second year studying at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and she takes her own Lifewise meetings as a volunteer.

The circle beams with pride when they listen to Kakau talk.

“I would not be here today if you hadn’t come together and put this programme into place,” she tells the group.

What is Lifewise?

Ask Lifewise Bay of Plenty regional manager Haehaetu Barrett what sets her organisation apart when it comes to helping the homeless and her answer is simple.

“We are a trained workforce that understands trauma.”

And what’s the end result?

Formerly drug-addicted or mentally unwell homeless people have the chance to live normal healthy lives in proper long-term homes.

In just 18 months, Lifewise’s Housing First arm has put 84 adults into permanent housing and Barrett said part of that success has been because of its mental health and addiction services.

Barrett came on board 11 years ago when Lifewise used to be the Bainbridge Trust on Old Taupo Rd.

She reconfigured the organisation to Lifewise in a partnership with local iwi. Financially supported by the Methodist Church, which is associated to Lifewise nationally, it bought a former bed and breakfast on Tarewa Rd which is now a live-in facility proving 17 beds for high-end addicts or mentally unwell clients.

Onsite there are three clinical staff, two peer support workers and 14 support workers on split shifts – and the workforce is growing. So too are its services, with a youth programme being worked in the wings.

There’s individual houses and rooms for clients, a tennis court, gym, pool and communal lounge.

Each day starts with exercise bright and early – and sometimes just getting up and achieving a workout is all some people going through detox can manage.

Through Ministry of Health-funded contracts, there’s clinical appointments, counselling sessions and just general chats and group sessions to remind everyone there they’re not alone.

They are kept busy and safe. There’s no guards, no locks or heavy hands. Just a friendly welcome no matter who you are or where you’ve come from.

Thursday is maintenance or gardening day when they all pitch in and keep the grounds looking spick and span and Sunday is whānau day when visitors are welcome.

Barrett is a hearty Rotorua woman. She’s proud of her team and their programme and is proud of their successes.

Like the other staff, she’s warm and friendly but also shoots from the hip.

“The 17 people can stay here and they become a strong bonded group from all walks of life. Meth and alcohol don’t just effect one group. We have had medical practitioners, lawyers, all sorts of people come through then you have the gang bangers … but they all come to common ground. They are all experiencing recovery.”

She said while addiction wasn’t just a Māori issue, their programme is kaupapa Māori-focussed and everyone warms to the whānau environment.

Once well or off drugs, the staff work to get permanent housing for clients. The heavily subsidised scheme through Ministry of Social Development can see them paying as little as $50 a week towards a home but the end goal is to pay full market rent and remain a good tenant.

“You don’t stay on the Housing First programme forever. Your end goal is to graduate. By then they have built confidence again. A lot of it is being valued and knowing they can cut it. It’s a big challenge going from paying $50 to $450 a week. But you have to start preparing and budgeting. If they are not prepared to come off the programme they will not crack it and will it be back here again (with Lifewise’s mental health and addiction services).”

Barrett said they supported but they don’t “enable”, meaning they didn’t give too many handouts and always ensured the end goal was to stand on their own feet.

Barrett is quick to point out this isn’t emergency housing or what’s happening on Fenton St.

She said while some were being offered wrap-around services in motels, it was her opinion they hadn’t always spent time in “recovery”, or detox and therefore weren’t ready to make sustainable changes to their lives.

“We don’t co-ordinate access into emergency housing in the motels because we think it’s too risky. We know the drugs are there. That’s where it’s all happening.”

She said their Housing First programme was client-led supported by a skilled workforce to provide wrap-around services to meet their high complexities.

“Lifewise is not favourable of emergency housing because that’s not homes for our people. It’s not. I can’t even believe it’s Fenton St anymore. It doesn’t even look like that in Auckland.”

She said it saddened her to see children going to school from motels.

“What’s their childhood story going to be?”

She said a majority of the city’s homeless had drug and alcohol root causes and under those issues was usually trauma of some kind.

“These people here are a trained workforce who understand trauma. Security guards don’t understand trauma, they just react to the behaviour and call police whereas my team are trained how to read trauma, they see the behaviour but they don’t buy in.”

Rotorua Housing First team leader Gillian Tangi said there were 103 people on the books and 84 had been housed. There as a further 18 waiting to be housed.

“We have an open door no matter what mental health or addictions. We can pathway our clients into Housing First and into Lifewise to help with addictions. We have housed clients not once, not twice, I think we are on a fourth time. It’s about support and we don’t turn our backs.”

She said 85 per cent of the people they helped belonged to Te Arawa.

“We help them get their kids back, give them family violence courses, medical help, banking help, Work and Income and we strongly advocate for our people because there is discrimination in the homeless space.”

Lifewise addictions clinical lead Irene McMahon said the addiction service could be used by those in “ward four” mental health ward at Rotorua Hospital or those with drug-induced psychosis who needed to go somewhere other than their homes, because it’s not safe, to get well and transition back into the community.

“There are others under the Mental Health Act and they can’t go home because their families are still frightened of them and there needs to be time apart where they can rebuild their relationship and see they are getting well again. They come here for routine and structure.”

She said some had forgotten what needed to happen to get back into a routine.

“They have to get up, get dressed, go to the gym five days a week. It makes a really big difference. It’s natural endorphins that are released. Up at 6.30am and off to the gym at 7.30am. After a few weeks, they start to notice the benefits. They have achieved something and sometimes that might be all they achieve.”

Meanwhile, Barrett said with her “right hand” and service leader, Tepora Apirana, they felt strong in what they were doing was working.

“To hear from Toni and Joseph affirms for Tepora and I that the mahi that we do is worth the sacrifice of a lot of our own stuff. When I say at a national and international level that we are turning lives around, we aren’t lying.”

Where to get help:

• Lifewise Lifewise Trust
07 3486 230 [email protected]
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202
• NATIONAL ANXIETY 24 HR HELPLINE: 0800 269 4389

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