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A room with a view

The view Alex looks out onto today is in stark contrast to his previous accommodation – a small, windowless basement without room to even stand up straight.

Alex’s journey began in 2004 when he made the decision to move to New Zealand from his native Brazil, keen to experience this country’s native. He was very curious about this country, particularly its unique natural history and fauna which greatly appealed to him. Alex knew that if he didn’t do it now, then he’d risk never being able to fulfil a long-held dream.

The move paid off as Alex immediately felt at home in New Zealand, as he could relate better to the locals who were friendly and engaging – in stark contrast to living in Sao Paulo in Brazil. Although he had arrived with little in the way of possessions, he was able to quickly find employment which helped him to settle in.

It was Alex’s job that gave him the greatest satisfaction and pride during this time. In Queenstown he worked as a tiler in site construction, where he had a unique talent for fixing tiling imperfections. His ability to repair tiles to a near-new level, preventing the whole wall or fixture from being replaced, found him in solid demand in the building industry.

He would also find time to explore the New Zealand landscape, taking photos of its native birds, insects and fauna, which quickly became a passion of his. One of his favourite subjects is the Tui, and he made several trips to Murchison to photograph them in the native bush.

“Living in a dark, cold basement with no windows took a great toll on me, mentally and emotionally.”

In 2011 Alex received his permanent residency, and not long after this he made the decision to move to Auckland for work. He rented a bedroom in a family home and worked out of their garage with his specialist tiling work. Alex says it was a busy time for him. ‘No-one else was doing this same type of job in Auckland, which gave me a steady stream of clients and enough money to get by on.’

Then the unthinkable happened. In early 2015 Alex started to develop unusual ‘tingling’ in the right side of his body, particularly his leg. He visited the doctor, but the issue – brain cancer – wasn’t detected until he had an MRI scan a few weeks later. Although they were able to start treating this cancer immediately, the delay cost Alex valuable time and resulted in permanent partial movement loss on his right hand side. Doctors gave him two years and live and encouraged him to reduce his stress levels as much as possible to help prevent the cancer form returning.

The news was devastating for Alex, who had been fit and healthy all his life after 17 years as a diving instructor in Brazil. Following intensive chemotherapy, radiotherapy and clinical trials, the cancer was held in check - but permanent damage his body had suffered made Alex unable to work.

‘I tried to go back to doing my old job, which I loved, but my body betrayed me. I didn’t have the strength to even pick up tools anymore.’

Being self-employed, Alex had no company health insurance or support to reply on. Although the assistance he received from Work & Income and Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ helped, he quickly ate into his savings and was left with almost nothing.

After almost six months in hospital, Alex was discharged and returned to his Ranui home. It was at this point that Alex had his first experience with The Salvation Army, who assisted him by providing a person to help him with basic cleaning and household care. In his weakened state and taking strong medication to stop the brain cancer from moving to his eyes, Alex was grateful for all the help he could get.

With Christmas approaching, Alex had another setback - the family Alex lived with asked him to leave, as they needed the room he was staying in. This forced Alex to begin looking for accommodation options within his meagre income, which were few – as many landlords were also wary of signing on a tenant with serious health issues.

Eventually he settled on the only housing available to him, a basement below an old, crumbling house that he found on the internet. Alex describes his living situation at this time as ‘appalling’.

‘The basement was three metres square and had no windows, natural light or even a lock on the door. The ceiling was so low that I had to hunch over just to walk around inside, and a lack of facilities meant that he had to knock on the door of the upstairs house just to use the bathroom.’

The room was uninsulated which made it extremely cold at times, and to make matters worse, one of the walls was made of plywood that separated the basement from the garage. The other side of this wall was littered with rubbish, and Alex would often be forced to sleep next to the pungent smells and could often hear rats going through the refuse.

Alex recalls this as an extremely unsettled time in his life, full of stress and sadness at a time when he needed a positive space to live in. ‘Living in a dark, cold basement with no windows took a great toll on me, mentally and emotionally.’

Although an independent person by nature, Alex knew that he needed help. He reached out to The Ministry of Social Development to be placed on the Social Housing Register. Despite Alex being on the register ‘fast-track’ due to his living conditions, the housing crisis in Auckland meant he was in for a long wait.

After almost a year of living in the basement, The Salvation Army stepped in and was able to find suitable accommodation for Alex. He was introduced to retired Majors Harold & June Robertson, who worked as mission & tenant support officers for the Army, and they helped set him up in an Army-owned social housing unit in Sunnyvale.

The subsidised rent meant that Alex could afford to live there within his budget, with Harold and June regularly visiting him to provide both support and companionship.

For Alex the difference from this unit to his previous housing was like night and day; literally so, as he had moved from a basement with no windows to a modest home with a view over the suburb. In the first few weeks after moving into the unit, Alex says he struggled to believe that he’d been ‘rescued’ from the basement – that he’d wake up and it’d all been a dream. This led to some initial feelings of insecurity on his part.

‘I would think that any minute, someone was going to knock on my door and say “sorry we’ve made a mistake, you’ll have to move out” so I found it a little hard to relax at first.

‘It was only after I asked Harold how long I could live in the unit for, and Harold said “Alex, you can stay here forever” that I started to feel like I truly belonged here.’

"I am happy to live one day at a time—New Zealand is a great place to live, and I think it’ll be a great place to die too."

Salvation Army social housing national director Greg Foster says that Alex’s situation is indicative of a growing trend the Army is responding to in New Zealand, that of helping people older than 55 who cannot afford to rent or buy property. He says there is a demographic change taking place in this country.

‘More and more baby boomers are hitting retirement age. With the number of people who don’t own homes, as they age and are still renting, they may not have the means to actually rent in the private sector anymore.’

A year on from moving into the unit, Alex’s general health has improved - in part due to his stress reduction – as he approaches 60. He uses a crutch due to muscle weakness and balance issues and knows that ‘forever’ may not in fact be that long for him, joking that he’s now living ‘in overtime’.

 ‘I am happy to live one day at a time—New Zealand is a great place to live, and I think it’ll be a great place to die too.’

Alex would love to get back into wildlife photography again, but limited funds and mobility prevent him from doing this. Instead he is content to watch the birds from the window of his unit and look at his old photos. He says that The Salvation Army was ‘a great surprise in my life’ at a time when he needed help the most.

‘Before living here, my life was a nightmare. The Salvation Army gave me a place where I could sleep without fear and with tranquillity, I have no words to say how grateful I am to them for it.

‘They do such a fantastic job and I will be never able to say thank you to them enough. I lost lots of good stuff in my life because of this condition, but the Army gave me a place to live out my days with some form of dignity – it changed my life.’

This story appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of our 'Together' newsletter. You can download and read this newsletter here.