The Christchurch bus interchange. The footpaths under High St store verandas. A now-empty Peterborough St lot.
All three of these properties were once places where Michael Apanui slept.
Now the 45-year-old has a newly renovated home in New Brighton that he was able to move into as part of Housing First – a programme recently launched with the aim of finding homes for many of the city’s “chronically homeless”.
“I come from a broken family,” Apanui said, when asked about the life that would eventually lead to rough sleeping on Christchurch streets.
Michael Apanui is one of the first of Christchurch’s homeless to be given a place to live under the Housing First scheme.
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“Life as a youngster wasn’t the best but it was as good as it was going to be for us. I ended up in state care. I was a ward of the state so some not-so-nice things happened to me while I was in that environment.”
Apanui said it was “sort of like you graduate from state care into the school of hard knocks”. Violence, drug dealing and other crime would become common into adulthood. His longest stint in prison would end up being for driving while disqualified.
“I had to serve the whole three years,” he said.
Apanui’s new home is a far cry from the places he used to sleep, like in the doorway of the Christchurch central bus interchange.
Family tragedy was the catalyst to Apanui’s move out of a home and onto the streets, and which eventually brought him to Christchurch as a transient.
“I went through a tough time when I lost my darling. She died of a heart attack at age 35. We buried our son before she died and so I found myself alone,” he said.
He dealt with his grief by using alcohol and drugs “to numb the pain and be away from the world”.
Apanui takes pride in his new home, and recently secured himself a job.
On and off for four-and-a-half years, Apanui and a group of new friends would find shelter in empty earthquake-damaged buildings in the central Christchurch, most of which have since been demolished.
“Everyone had their story. Hardship, grief, relationship difficulties, hence the reason why they were all on the streets.”
He met a “lovely lady” named Ruth Kenny on a New Brighton roadside, who gave him her business card.
About three months later, a relative who had been letting Apanui stay over lost their house. He was back on the streets and called Kenny, a key worker with Housing First.
Apanui has been playing guitar for about two-and-a-half years.
She picked him up from where he had been sleeping in the city, assessed whether he met the criteria and eventually Apanui got his first home “since my darling was alive”.
“It actually makes you feel good, it lifted my self-esteem,” he said.
“I was way down in the depths of Loch Ness for quite a while there … I was struggling to get myself out of that situation and emotionally I was wrecked.”
Apanui said he had always wanted to work, but not having a home was a barrier to employment. Less than a month into living at his new home, he had already secured three months work whitebaiting.
When the season finished he wanted to branch into peer support, to help others who had been through similar experiences to him.
The key factor, and the reason many believe Housing First could end homelessness, was choice. Apanui got into work because he wanted to, so Housing First staff and support agencies helped him get there.
He said having a home gave him a sense of purpose and helped raise his self esteem, giving him the motivation to give himself a better life.
Housing First team leader Nicola Fleming said 15 people had now been homed through the programme in Christchurch.
The Ministry of Social Development-funded Christchurch programme was expected to cost $1.8m to house 50 people in the first year and $2.35m for another 50 people the next.
“Chronically homeless” is defined by advocates as someone continuously living on the streets for more than a year, who has physical, mental health or addiction issues.
He is currently in work, but wants to find a job helping others who have been in the same situation as him.
Fleming said Housing First staff would find existing services in the community that could support their clients, including those offered by partner organisations including Emerge [Aotearoa], Ōtautahi Community Housing Trust, Comcare, Christchurch City Mission and Te Whare Roimata.
“If they [former homeless] make the choices then they feel accountable to that,” Fleming said.
“It’s a new way of working for Christchurch and I think that’s hard for people to get their head around … hopefully in the end it’ll end homelessness but it’ll also prevent it as well.”