Inside helping the homeless find fresh starts during the COVID-19 crisis

Lifewise street navigator James Sturch with Johnny, a member of the homeless community who is now housed in a motel.
Lifewise street navigator James Sturch with Johnny, a member of the homeless community who is now housed in a motel. Photo credit: Supplied

Fighting on the frontline: As we transition into alert level 2, Newshub is talking to the essential workers who have provided vital support to Kiwis during lockdown.

To have a roof over your head and the ability to isolate indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic isn't an opportunity granted to everyone.

New Zealand's homeless community not only have the hardship of living on the streets, but there's added uncertainty for them during lockdown of being unable to hustle and receive donations from passersby. Additionally, many shops are closed and their options to survive are much more minimal.

James Sturch works as a street navigator for Lifewise, an organisation that, among a raft of different services, helps provide long term housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness. During the lockdown, he and his co-workers have helped 52 homeless people move into motels so they can safely self-isolate, and they've also given them food parcels, official IDs and bank accounts to help give them a fresh start.

Sturch hasn't been in this job for long, in fact, he began working as a street navigator on March 23 - two days before New Zealand went into alert level 4 lockdown.

But in the short time he's been in this role, he says he's found it rewarding seeing the change in the homeless community and how their attitudes towards life have shifted.

"A lot of the time, the street whānau have trust issues and have just been thrown around the system and let down, so we promised them that we would house them and work with them and stick by them until the end," Sturch told Newshub.

"It's breaking down the barriers and saying 'we're here with you through this', and showing them that we're providing support and education and getting them help and being there for them. It's breaking down those barriers, and actually it's been rewarding showing them how far they've come, and rewarding seeing the changes in them."

James Sturch.
James Sturch. Photo credit: Supplied

Rough sleepers and the homeless community access motels provided by Lifewise by visiting their office, filling out a form that's sent to the Ministry of Social Development and waiting a couple of hours before it's approved. Once it's accepted, they're packed up, provided with essentials including a cell phone and food, and taken by a Lifewise worker to the motel to help them get settled in.

Nicole Simmons, who is team leader for the Merge Community emergency housing navigators and Street Reach outreach teams, says it's been "quite the operation" since COVID-19 hit.

"One of the biggest challenges for us is just the sheer volume of people that we're having to support day-to-day. Another one is the PPE gear," she told Newshub.

She says their job is based on supporting people face-to-face, but this can be difficult when they're diligently following health and safety restrictions by wearing gloves and masks and physical distancing.

"[The homeless community] are very into high-fives and handshakes and hugs, and it's been really challenging for us to really be role models around physical distancing and helping people understand why it's really important. From a cultural perspective it's really hard in te ao Māori, just that lack of connection in a different way."

Her strategy is to be "straight up" with people to try and get around these barriers. Simmons says even though it's difficult to have those conversations by asking the homeless and rough sleepers to respect physical distancing rules, it's important they do those things.

"I think what was evident to us in the beginning was that they don't have the same understanding or access to information about how to keep themselves safe during this time."

Simmons says even though the pandemic has its challenges for everyone, they've also seen a lot of opportunities. They've been able to assist people to receive benefits, help them set goals for their future and support them in moving forward.

"A lot of the rules have relaxed around emergency housing, and so I guess the Government's directive was just get everyone inside. Our homeless, our street whānau have the right, just like everyone else, to self-isolation," she says.

Nicole Simmons.
Nicole Simmons. Photo credit: Supplied

For both Sturch and Simmons, being an essential worker has its personal challenges. For Sturch, it means only seeing his seven-year-old son over FaceTime instead of physically visiting him - he doesn't want to potentially expose him to the virus. But he knows this is only a temporary arrangement.

"It's short term pain for long term gain - my son understands that. But we're looking forward to level 2 so we can get back to a little bit of normality with that situation," he says.

"That's been the hardest for me, but rewarding working with the street whānau."

A struggle for Simmons is the worry that comes with working in the community and not knowing if she may have caught the virus each day.

"Another big struggle is the anxiety and nerves, because we are out there and you just really never know. The first sign of a sniffle and it's 'how are you feeling'. It's just another level of stress on top of something that's already quite stressful… But I love my job and I didn't really think twice about it."

They both say they see the uncertainty and nervousness from the homeless community during the pandemic, and for Simmons it's a "no brainer" that their work is important.

"Although there are those risks, it's really about the long term planning for the people we're supporting. It's really about making the most of the opportunity to get them in the system and build those relationships."