Ahead of this year’s Red Shield Appeal, Robin Raymond went behind the scenes at a busy Community Ministries centre to see how the Army helps fight poverty.
Half-past nine on a Wednesday morning, the staff at Porirua Community Ministries is discussing a rubber chicken. The chicken is awarded each weekly staff meeting to a staff member who did something silly. This week there are no suggestions, so social worker Grant offers to take it, giving it a loud squeak.
It’s a light-hearted break from discussions on how to deal with clients who turned up stoned, and the work to get their three new emergency houses ready to open this month. ‘The good news is, they didn’t get broken into yesterday,’ says centre manager Geoff.
The team of eight paid staff and six volunteers work in the heart of Cannons Creek—an area known historically for gangs and poverty. It’s improving and is a very welcoming community, Geoff insists. Almost no one sleeps rough because people open their homes, he adds. ‘A few weeks ago we found a three-bedroom house with 15 people living in it, including a new-born baby and another with 18 people.’
But there’s no shortage of need. According to the latest census, over half the households in Cannons Creek (54.7 per cent) earned $20,000 or less a year, and 20 per cent of people were unemployed.
Last year, the Porirua Community Ministries team helped 953 people and their families. ‘It’s sad at times, it’s frustrating at times, but it’s very satisfying,’ Geoff says. ‘There’re always more clients, but we make a significant difference with individuals. It can be frustrating, but it’s also very rewarding and by the time they’re finished, they’re much better off.’
Geoff is a former deputy principal, whose last job was with the Ministry of Education. ‘It’s a contrast with teaching, because there you deal with the kids—here you can help the whole family. There’s one young man down the road who was sitting on his backside doing nothing. We got him doing carpentry at Whitirea [Polytechnic]. It’s having a spin-off that he’s now out there working and his mum’s now got a job as well. It’s lovely when that happens.’
But it can be hard work for his staff, who ‘do everything a Community Ministries can’ to best help their clients.
Our conversation is paused as the centre van comes free and Geoff’s off to buy and install curtain rails in the new emergency houses. Also on his list is to trim all the doors to fit over new, thicker carpet they’ve been given—sometime when he’s free. With Geoff gone, it’s back downstairs to see how everything works for the clients.
At reception is Jade—the journey through Community Ministries starts with her. Jade is one of about half the team who live in the area. It helps when clients see a face they know. ‘We make it as friendly as possible, so everyone starts out with a good experience,’ she says.
Jade directs clients to the right person. Like the man she’s just sent to a back office to be interviewed by Elizabeth for a food parcel. It’s one of about 75 parcels Liz will give out this month—a third to first-time visitors. ‘The foodbank is not about food parcels. There’s always an issue behind the need for a food parcel, and when I do the interview I’m listening for that.’
This man is her second client of the morning after an elderly couple. ‘She was in a wheelchair and he was using two walking sticks. They were on superannuation, but couldn’t afford more groceries and didn’t know if there were other benefits they qualified for. If they’ve run out of food, they’ve run out of food—and if they don’t go to a foodbank they don’t eat. Sometimes they’re upset at asking for help and I say, “It’s okay, we’re here to help you.” ’
Liz, who is also a member of the Salvation Army church, has been at Porirua Community Ministries for 10 years, first as a social work student, then in the foodbank. Her day starts at 8 am picking up donated supplies, packing shelves and preparing to interview clients at 9:30. ‘Once the assessments are finished we do a check on how much food we have got, which today is almost nothing. We’re so lucky though that we get what we get.’
A few minutes later a truck arrives from Countdown with a delivery of items donated through The Salvation Army’s online foodbank, The Foodbank Project (foodbank.org.nz). Liz also works with other foodbanks and support agencies in the Wellington area, securing and sharing supplies.
On Mondays, the Salvation Army church has a ‘grace meal’, where anyone can eat for a koha. Community Ministries is in the same building, inviting people and providing food and volunteers to feed the about 100 people who come.
Budgeting is a key part of Porirua’s service. The budgeting team is so busy they have a waiting list. Like many of his colleagues, although he’s officially part-time, budget team leader Damien goes above and beyond, even visiting clients in the evening, Geoff says. Damien also looks after the Community Finance Scheme (salvationarmy.org.nz/loans), where clients can get a low- or no-interest loan to help get essential items without taking on unsustainable debt. The loans have been popular and work well, but are only part of the effort to address long-term issues. ‘It’s about self-sufficiency,’ Geoff says.
Enthusiastic social worker Grant is a key stop for housing clients. Grant works with them to make a plan to use Community Ministries programmes and other providers to address problems they’re facing and build on their strengths. Grant works closely with other staff and meets regularly with clients to make sure their plan is working, advocates with WINZ, and has helped some into study or with job interviews.
Grant is bubbling with success stories. ‘One lady was living with her daughter, and her daughter’s partner was intimidating and violent. We helped her into our emergency housing with some of the grandchildren and I rang CYF, who worked with the daughter. Since being with us, she said her self-esteem has improved 100 per cent. The housing gave her the head space to carry on studying Māori, and she's now teaching it. She said, “Thank you for restoring my faith in God.” ’
Community Ministries programmes broadly fit into two categories: those that help a person heal—counselling, social work, life skills and a new mentoring programme for housing clients; and those that build skills for the future—budgeting, parenting, life skills again, plus referrals for alcohol and drug addiction rehabilitation or living with violence programmes.
Wendy runs the Step Up Lifeskills course and mentoring. The longest-serving team member, Wendy started as a counsellor just before Liz. When she’s not running a course or mentoring, she’s designing the next eight- or nine-week lifeskills course, talking with the other staff about clients' needs so she can mix basic skills with things specific for them.
This term she’s teaching sewing; last term was gardening and cooking. Wendy lights up talking about the vegetable garden she set up five years ago to use for courses. ‘This term we made tomato chutney with tomatoes from the garden. In the winter we always try to make soup.’
It’s more than just practical skills, though. ‘We’ve done a lot in building self-esteem and self-awareness, on grief and loss, parenting and relationships. A lot of clients go on to the work force or use it as a stepping stone to more education.’
It’s clear Wendy loves the work and she neatly sums up what other staff say about it. ‘It’s where my passion and God’s calling come together. It’s empowering, it’s helping the community and working with people on the margins, which is what I feel the church is called to do. It’s not always obvious, but on an individual level people’s lives are totally changed.’
Emergency Housing is where it all comes together. Clients facing homelessness come in for eight to 12 weeks on the agreement they also engage with a wraparound of Community Ministries services. The aim is to make sure the issues that got them there doesn’t recur and they leave with confidence, housing coordinator Sarah says.
Sarah and Grant interview clients before they arrive and connect them with the others as needed: Susan for counselling, Damien for budgeting, Wendy for mentoring or a life-skills programme. Sarah also works with other agencies that help accommodate people when the Army can’t.
Sarah is responsible for the maintenance of the houses and client support. ‘It’s relationships really; building relationships is a big part of my job. When they have issues they will call me up and I go down and work out how we can help. It’s a part-time role, but I get texts at nine o’clock at night, weekends.’
When clients are ready to leave, Sarah and Grant help them set up their new homes and visit to check how they’re going. Some come back for additional support, others as volunteers, many just to say hi, Sarah says. ‘Often it’s the relationship they’re coming back for. Sometimes they don’t have that in their family and everyone needs a family.’
The combination of practical services and ready support offered at Porirua Community Ministries is a powerful mix. ‘It can be life-changing,’ says Sarah. ‘Sometimes it’s small changes, learning to manage money, going to counselling to talk about issues and get some healing. For some people, that feeling of unconditional support is something they’ve never had before—that can make a big difference.’
by Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 6 June 2017, pp6-8
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.