anglicantaonga

Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Battling the housing crisis

Continuing our introductions to folk from the social justice groups... This week, we meet Pania Houkamau-Ngaheu – who knows how raw the needs of the homeless can be.

Taonga News  |  16 Oct 2017  |

April 23, 2016 – that’s when the Siege of Porirua began.

A boy from Waipukurau in Hawkes Bay had been on the run for weeks – and he’d been cornered in the top floor of a state house duplex in Kokiri Cres.

He had a gun.

And when four police officers had entered that house to arrest him, he’d shot a police dog.

One of those officers had jumped for his life out of a top-storey window, broken his shoulder and wrist in his fall, and a police chopper had landed in Kokiri Cres to evacuate him.

All hell had broken loose in Kokiri Cres – and police cordoned off the neighbourhood.

People who’d left for work in the morning of April 23 couldn’t get home that evening.

They had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. No toothbrushes, no hairbrushes, no change of clothes for their kids… and nowhere to go.

They’d have had nowhere to go, that is, if it hadn’t been for Pania Houkamau-Ngaheu and the team she leads at Horouta Marae, in Whitford Brown Ave.

They threw their doors open – and over the course of the next night and day[1] Horouta fed 500 people: Waitangirua residents, the armed offender’s squad and the whanau of the gunman.

“It was a cold night”, Pania recalls. “But that wharenui was warm.”

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Mahanatanga. Warmth that penetrates not just the body, but the recesses of the heart. That’s what Pania, who has Ngati Porou and Tuhoe links, is about.

Helping kindle that warmth, and providing leadership to make that happen.

That’s what drove her to get Horouta restored in the first place.

Horouta had been built in the 1970s, but the wharenui had never been finished, and had fallen into rack and ruin. It had laid empty for two decades.

On his deathbed, Horouta’s former chairman had broken with tradition, and anointed Pania as his successor. Got her to promise that she’d rebuild the house.

So, Pania gathered a team behind her. They had next to no money, but in September 2011, they began work – and on December 7, 2013, they opened their new wharenui.

“I guess what the people needed,” says Pania, “was somebody to remind them about their strengths, to remind them about their dreams.

“And to remind them that not everything costs money. 

“Love doesn’t cost money. Having a dream doesn’t cost money.

“You may need some money to make a dream come true, but it starts somewhere else.” 

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With drive like that, and empathy like that, it’s easy to see why MSD shoulder-tapped Pania to manage its new WINZ Emergency Housing team in Porirua.

Midway through last year, the floodgates opened on that team.

In the runup to the budget, the media was running hard with stories about the growing numbers of people being forced to live in cars, shipping containers, garages and under bridges.

Then on May 16 John Key said, on air, that people in those circumstances should seek help from Work and Income.

“With that sort of advertising,” says Pania, “it just opened the floodgates. There was this huge influx, this huge demand.”

“From a process point of view, perhaps it’s easy for us. We can tap-tap on a few keys, and make a couple of phone calls.

“But for the families who are sitting on the other side… We know the taumahatanga that’s on them, the heaviness that’s on them.

“And the children who come in and sit next to their parents – wondering where they’re going to stay tonight. Whose bed are they going to sleep in? They’re totally dependent. They’re highly vulnerable.

“Can I also say to you that the face of homelessness is not necessarily the face of someone on a benefit? Ok?

“We see the face of homelessness in communities where families are working, people are paying taxes – and they have, till now, been totally independent of services such as Work and Income.

“And then suddenly, they find themselves needing our help.

“What tips them into this state?

“A hike in rent, mostly. Landlords are not regulated. There’s no law to say they can’t increase a rental from $220 to $450 a week.

“And if they do, suddenly people can’t afford their homes anymore.”

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Pania spent most of her growing up years in Hicks Bay, on the East Coast.

Her koro was a rangatira up that way, and he and Pania’s nanny were the hub of their community.

Pania’s dad though – the hustle and bustle of Ngati Porou politics just wasn’t for him.

So he hightailed it. He eloped with a young wahine from Tuhoe, in fact, and they had Pania. But they separated, and Pania’s mum went back to Tuhoe, taking Pania with her.

“But my nanny from Ngati Porou, married to this chief of Ngati Porou, refused to take this lying down.

“So she jumped in a car, came to Tauarau marae in Tuhoe, and took me. I was six years old.

“They call it kidnapping today. But back then it was: ‘This is my moko, and I’m taking her.”

A couple of years ago, Pania went back to Tauarau for the first time since she was six.

“I was talking away, and this kuia comes running out and says to me: ‘Are you Pania?’

“I said: ‘Yes I am. How do you know?’ 

“She goes: ‘I was the one looking after you. And you were stolen from me.’

“It was very, very emotional for us both, and it was quite a revelation to me.

“So when we talk about displacement, homelessness, and stuff like that – I feel I had a taste of that in my own life.

“I don’t overanalyse this.

“But I just look back, and say: ‘I’ve had these experiences, and they helped shape how I am now.’”

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So how did Pania get connected into this new housing portfolio group?

Well, for starters, Pania comes from a staunch Mihinare whanau – and in December last year, in fact, she was priested.

These days, she’s the Rev Canon Pania Houkamau-Ngaheu – and Paul Reynolds recently heard her speaking at a takiwa training wananga. He came calling soon after that.

Pania reflects about this new avenue of service: “I suppose I could have gone on to a number of different groups,” she says. “I’ve worked in mental health, for example.

“But my number one passion these days is for the displaced. It’s for the homeless among us. OK. I know we all need to be able to go to the doctors. I know we all need education.

“And I know we need food.

“But shortage of food doesn’t necessarily break a family.

“Because we can connect families to organisations who can put food into their homes.

“I know too, that families need support systems.

“But we can connect the families to those things, too.

“But having a home?

“That makes all the difference.”

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So what are Pania’s hopes for the new Anglican housing portfolio group?

“That we will be able to engage, and connect with what’s happening at grassroots level.

“That we will know what matters, and know what works. And be able to relay this information to the powers that be, to the Pihopatanga, and to our Archbishops – so they will become the voice of the victims at the top end. 

“My hope is that we can strengthen our movement, to help make that difference.

“I’ve had some incredible experiences, which have shaped me, and been great learnings for me.

“I like to think they’ve equipped me to sit amongst this group of wonderful, gifted people who, like me, are wanting to make a difference.”

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Footnote: Other members of the housing group include: Paul Gilberd, who is the General Manager, Strategy and Development, for the New Zealand Housing Foundation; Rev Charles Waldegrave, who is the leader of the Pakeha section of Lower Hutt’s Family Centre, as well as leader of the Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit; Paul Barber, who is a policy advisor on the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services; Chris Farrelly, who is the CEO of the Auckland City Mission, as well as a Catholic priest; and Kate Day, who is a Social Justice Advocate for the Diocese of Wellington focussing on affordable housing rents and a living wage.

[1] The siege ended after 26 hours. The house at the centre of the siege had become quiet. So the police re-entered, and found the gunman dead.

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