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Book Review: Homeground. The story of a building that changes lives. Plus book extract

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

HomeGround; The Story of a building that changes lives

Simon Wilson et al

Massey University Press

RRP $65.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

For many years the crowds milling outside the Auckland City Mission on Albert St was one of the obvious signs of the housing and homelessness crisis affecting the country. They were a stark reminder that New Zealand had one of the highest levels of homelessness in the OECD.

But this year has seen the start of what many hope will be a radical change in the way the country addresses the issue of homelessness. The Auckland City Mission opened HomeGround a new multi-story development which directly addresses the problem providing accommodation and support services for eighty residents.

Those who experiences homelessness and living in poverty are normally never able to access affordable housing. This experience may result from loss of a job and income, sickness or short-term disability, needing to leave their home due to violence. For some this will be a temporary period in their lives but others may have a number of these episodes over their lifetime.

There are a number of ways that permanent supportive housing can be created and managed but the major way is the ‘high density’ models such as HomeGround which involves people living in one apartment complex, with some of the support services they need to sustain their tenancies provided on-site. 

The new building designed by Stevens Lawson Architects has 80 residential units each with their own kitchen and bathroom. The complex also has extensive support elements – a detox centre, medical centre, food bank, a roof top terrace as well as several lounges and meeting rooms.

The genesis and development of the project has been documented in a new book “HomeGround, The Story of a building that changes lives” written largely by Simon Wilson.

It records the key steps and individuals that brought the building and the work done thereinto existence – a visionary social services agency, a committed architecture practice, courageous funders, and skilled construction specialists.

From the plans the building looks very much like a hotel with individual guest room and various facilities but the thinking behind it and the consultation around its design was very different. For HomeGround consultation was focused on the eventual inhabitants and their particular needs. What was being built was not just a building but a community and that was at the centre of the design thinking. While the building creates a village for the inhabitants it has been designed as a part of the wider community and there is a walkway which allows members of the public to move from one street to another through the complex so they connect with the inhabitants rather than merely passing by.

The acknowledgement of the inhabitants is central to the book and Simon Wilson includes a section where he has interviewed two of the residents who talk of their depressing and harrowing lives which have brought them to this place, through bad parenting, ill health, drug taking, social isolation. HomeGround offers a retreat, a new beginning, possibly even a paradise.

Simon Wilson has written the book along with Professor Deidre Brown and Dr Karamia Muller and there is a foreword by Richard Didsbury. Photographer Mark Smith has photographed the building as though for an architectural publication but has also documented the people who have made the building possible as well as the people who live there and the people who work there.

The book weaves together the various threads of creative architecture and planning acute social problems along with the power of individuals and organisations to effect social change.

Simon Wilson is one of New Zealand’s best-known journalists. The former editor of Cuisine and Metro magazines and Auckland editor for The Spinoff, he is now a senior writer at The New Zealand Herald. He is a regular writer on urban and social issues.

Professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) is an art historian and architectural lecturer. She is head of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland and a governor of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. Dr Karamia Muller is a Pacific academic who lectures at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland. Her research specialises in the meaningful ‘indigenisation’ of creative practices and design methodologies invested in building futures resistant to inequality.

HomeGround, Entrance from Hobson Street

HomeGround book extract

For the Mission team charged with populating HomeGround, it was clear that one of the key issues would be how to choose who would get to live there. There are an estimated 20,000 homelesspeople in Auckland, hundreds, if not thousands, of whom, the Mission knew, would like to live in HomeGround. And they had spaces for 80.

The advice from overseas was to populate the building in stages, taking a year if necessary. They were building a community and taking the time to choose well now would, they decided, pay off later. But going slow is hard when the need is so pressing.

Some things were already decided. The apartments would all go to people on the social housing register run by the Ministry of Social Development. Following the Australian Common Ground model, the Housing First programme mandated that half of them would be for people who were ‘chronically homeless’, defined as having spent at least a full year on the street, or having had four episodes of sleeping rough in the previous three years, and having at least two comorbidities, which can include mental illness, physical illness, trauma or acquired brain injury (ABI). The rest of the apartments would be for people who might still be in acute need, but were not facing such complex health or wellbeing issues.

There were other factors, too. Chris Farrelly says it was always important to make it a diverse community. ‘That means gender diverse, so half the people living in HomeGround will be women.

And there will be younger people, older people, sexual diversity. It’s not just for the old male streeties. And yes, there are a lot of them, so the Mission has to find other ways to help them, too.’

The small apartments these new tenants call home are smart and attractive. Would anyone dare to say that they are too good? ‘It’s an act of justice. It’s about the dignity of an experience,’ says Helen Robinson of the quality they sought and have achieved. ‘Every person who walks through that door should know they matter.’

‘The building is impressive,’ says Chris Farrelly. ‘We wanted to make it part of Auckland, not something in a dark alley. It links to the whole city and it says, “This is Auckland, be proud of it, come in yourself.” If you look at the apartments, they’re comfortable, but they’re relatively plain and they’re smallish.’

To those who would question the standard, Jacqui Dillon would say, ‘You’re saying we should do the work out of a tin shed? This is a tangible manifestation of our commitment to equity.’

‘We deserve to be properly resourced,’ says Helen Robinson. ‘We want to be neither poor nor excessive. We just need what we need. We’re not being ostentatious here — it’s beautiful but it’snot flashy.’

‘Everyone has a sense of home, it’s a nurturing thing,’ adds Joanne Reidy. ‘Doesn’t everyone deserve a home?’ ‘Nothing like this has been done anywhere in the world,’ says Chris Farrelly. ‘All the Common Grounds are apartment complexes. They use the Housing First model but they don’t have food facilities, medical centres, all those other things on site. The support staff come in, but that’s it.

We’re doing something really special here, for the people among us in the greatest need. Isn’t that good?’

At the function the Mission held for Sir Chris on the day of his investiture in 2022, Liz Sosaia, one of the Mission’s peer support workers, was first on her feet to make a speech. She said she’d been sleeping rough when Farrelly was appointed. First time she saw him, she thought, ‘Oh yeah, who’s this old white guy? That’s ridiculous, what’s he gonna do?’ Farrelly sat down and talked to her. Later, she was in prison, and Farrelly and Helen Robinson went to visit her. She cried at that, because they’d taken the time to care.

‘Liz was amazing,’ remembers Joanna Pidgeon. ‘All these “important” people were there, and she stood up and spoke so eloquently and movingly. That’s why we do it. You want to give people the opportunity to realise their potential. You’ve got to have hope. And if they’re seen and valued, they will respond to that. That’s why we didn’t want to build a second-rate place.’

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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