Sometimes, the simplest of statements can touch hearts and change lives. I had such a happening at the end of last year.
I was invited to share lunch and speak with members of Awhina Mai at Freemans Bay Community Centre. It was there I met a homeless person who offered me an amazing insight into life – and death – on the streets of Auckland.
Awhina Mai is a client-based initiative of the Auckland City Mission in collaboration with Auckland Council, offering a monthly range of activities and a networking hub one day a month for homeless people in Auckland.
The group has a guest speaker after lunch and seeks a no-holds-barred question and answer session.
On my visit there were about 15 homeless people present, engaged in different creative activities around the centre.
From Scotland to Auckland
I began by talking about my background and how a working class Scot came to be chairwoman of the Community Development and Safety Committee of Auckland Council.
I'm the youngest of six children. It was a massive struggle for my parents to raise a large family on a postman's pay. We had no washing machine, fridge, phone or car. Holidays were day trips to the coast with charitable organisations.
School and the local public library gave me the tools of learning which led to my success in the Scottish education system, and in obtaining an MA and PhD. That's where my passion for social justice and libraries comes from.
I spoke about Auckland Council's work on homelessness and how we are working to co-ordinate activities across the region.
No one should ever die alone
I invited comments from the audience about what we should be focusing on. Lots of great contributions flowed from there. It was near the end that Rose, an older Māori woman, spoke up.
In a quiet voice, Rose said one of her greatest concerns, which she felt was widely shared by those sleeping rough, is the fear of dying alone on the streets and not being 'sent off' appropriately.
Rose said she had attended several funerals of homeless people at Auckland City Mission who had lost contact with their families. That saddened her.
She said she made efforts to bring the homeless whānau together to 'memorialise' the passing of any street friend. Rose asked if there was anything Auckland Council could do to ensure the last wishes of a homeless person are recorded and enacted after death.
It was such a simple request, but one that opened so many doors in my heart. I felt such a sadness at the idea of people dying alone in the streets of Auckland.
After I left Rose that day, I did some research to see what had been done about the needs of homeless people in relation to dying. Several studies in England and America have examined the needs of homeless people with respect to sickness and end of life care.
Homeless population at risk
These studies found the needs of the homeless population are unique. Their daily struggle to survive takes precedence over most things. They have significant barriers to accessing healthcare services. As a result they get sick more often and have more accidents.
Importantly, the research identified that homeless people are more likely to die earlier than the homed population. That could be as much as 20 years earlier. They are also more likely to die alone.
I called my friend Wilf at the Auckland City Mission. He confirmed that the mission holds funerals for at least six homeless people every year whose bodies are not claimed by family or whānau. Work and Income New Zealand foots the bill for a basic funeral and cremation. The mission works with a local undertaker to provide the service.
Auckland Council's role
As we enter the first quarter of 2017, one of the mayor and council's main aims is to work with agencies, the government and homeless people to take collective positive action to end homelessness in Auckland.
We need to work together to ensure that no one dies alone on the streets of Auckland in 2017.
Albert-Eden-Roskill ward councillor Cathy Casey is chair of the council's community development and safety committee, which is responsible for addressing homelessness.
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Monday 27 February.