Abuse and threats force Porirua Free for All store to close

Bill Hickman for RNZ

The creator of Wellington sharing store Free for All says she is closing up shop because she is unable to keep her volunteers and customers safe.

Free for All began out of Dee Glentworth's home nine years ago. The store gives away donated goods, appliances and clothing in exchange for a $5 entry fee to cover costs.

"It's like a dating agency for stuff. It's a large retail store but everything in it is free. Free for All creates an opportunity for people and items to be matched," Glentworth said.

For the past four years, the store had been operating out of a 400 sqm warehouse in Porirua - but repeated instances of abuse, intimidation and the dumping of waste at the store had left Glentworth uncertain how she can go on.

Glentworth posted a tear-filled message to her community this week saying that she could not keep going.

She said staff have had to call police six times in the three weeks since the store had reopened after Christmas.

They had also had property graffitied, the bins gone through and customers being disrespectful and dumping goods on the floor.

"Since the cost of living crisis has really hit, there seems to be a total shift in the feel of everything," Glentworth said.

"Police are so tapped at the moment they haven't been able to get here. So we're effectively on our own in very inflammatory, potentially dangerous situations and I don't know what to do.

"One woman told other people she was going to smack my head in because I told her to not stand in the middle of the road or she'd get hit by a car. It's just insane.

"I would really like my team to be smiling by the end of the day, not worn down and upset. We want to be able to share things with joy in our heart not fear.

"We don't do it for money. My team slog their guts out. I just want to be respected and safe."

Long-term supporter, Greater Wellington Regional councillor David Lee was hoping he could be a part of the solution.

Lee said he had been involved in supporting Glentworth's store since he first heard of the initiative about seven years ago. His initial interest came from his role in the waste minimisation committee.

"It's a win-win for everyone not just the environment but socially. There are a lot of family's that are really struggling and this is their best way of accessing goods which they probably wouldn't be able to access because of cost," Lee said.

This week Lee agreed to step up to become a board of trustees member to help shape the direction of the store and keep the good work going.

"I don't want to see this model fail. We need to rethink or tweak the model so this undesirable element is eliminated," Lee said.

"Currently, people just come and go and get to take stuff, but if we're looking at a possible registration or membership model where people have to register or login in when you're coming in then you have a track record of whose coming and going. And that could be a big enough deterrent for these undesirable elements to surface."

He hoped the current situation would be a small speed bump in the store's history.

"That's not going to stop Dee," he said.

Callan Lombaard worked in a nearby plumbing business. He said he was "pissed off" that a minority of people were ruining the store's positive impact in the community.

"These guys are all volunteers and they're doing this because they want to help the community. They're giving up their time and the fact that they get verbal abuse and threats, getting rubbish dumped there ...come on guys," Lombaard said.

When Lombaard's family arrived from South Africa, they had travelled with only a few bags worth of possessions, a stroller and a portable cot.

The store had been an invaluable source of items he described as "nice to haves", he said.

His family had been saving up for a weighted blanket to help his daughter - who has a sensory processing disorder - when they found one at Free for All.

"Weighted blankets cost several hundred dollars to buy brand new and it has helped my daughter heaps. Saving - with the cost of living the way it is these days - is quite difficult," Lombaard said.

"Things like that which normally would set you back several hundred dollars you get for the five dollar entrance fee... its a lifesaver."

He hoped the store could find a way to work around the problems.

"People want Free for All to still happen. The community benefits so much from it. If Free For All were to die there'd be a lot more people that are in worse off situations because they'd need to buy stuff and that means they can't spend money on other necessities. They've got to spend extra money to buy new clothes when they need to buy groceries."