Awhina Mai: Creating an inner-city home for the homeless

On days when the sun beats down on a small community garden, nestled in the shifting shadows of Auckland's CBD, Robert Smith and his crew of homeless carvers can be seen chipping away at a donated slab of timber, working together to make something beautiful. 

Robert is the voice for Awhina Mai Tatou Katoa, a collective for the homeless by the homeless.

"Every one of our guys who work on Awhina Mai have lived experience and have come from the streets."

Mr Smith slept rough for a year-and-a half around Auckland's inner city. This wealth of lived knowledge about life on the streets allows Awhina Mai to connect on a deeper level with those in need.

"Building that connection, building that trust - I think that's probably one of our main strengths actually, really connecting with our whānau, laughing with them, dancing with them, just having some good times with them, putting a bit of light into their lives." 

"In the Māori culture, it was our strength. No one was homeless on a marae - everyone had a role, everyone was looked after. 

"It's a great model to go back to."

As part of Art Week, Awhina Mai is collaborating with 'For the Love of Bees', a "living social sculpture" that forms a special bond with Awhina Mai, through the homeless community that congregates at their urban garden.

They're working to shape two pieces of donated timber under the guidance of Tommy Ropata, a seasoned carver from south Auckland, into pieces that represent the two taniwha of Auckland's respective harbours. The sculptures are a showcase of what's possible for homeless communities, when given the right tools.

'For the Love of Bees' is the brainchild of Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, a conceptual artist and 2016 resident of McCahon house, who has now turned her creative eye to community. 

"We look like we're a 'bee' story, but actually we're relearning how to be an holistic, integrated, cohesive, vibrant city." 

Ultimately, they are hoping to create a space for homeless to feel at home.

"A way for them to actually be in the city how you would be in your own backyard," says Ms Smuts-Kennedy.