Three Aucklanders tell their story of homelessness

Photography Warren Payne

Face to face

They are homeless. But there’s more to them than that. Here are three personal stories from inside an Auckland crisis.

We all know homelessness is a problem, but public discussion of it often feels abstract, and ignores the individual humanity of the people who are living on the streets. That’s a perception photographer Warren Payne sought to counter earlier this year when he approached the Auckland City Mission offering his services. He hoped that taking portraits of some of their clients might help re-present them as people, rather than generalised casualties, and highlight the need to take action to ensure they can find adequate support and a place to live.

It wasn’t an approach he took lightly – and neither did the Mission. “The City Mission rightfully have their clients’ privacy and interests at the forefront,” Payne says. Mission staff put the word out, and three volunteers agreed to be photographed and interviewed: Brenda Fenton, Hare Wihongi, and Bryan (the latter preferred not to reveal his surname). 

Payne, who normally works on advertising campaigns and lifestyle shoots, made his portraits using flash equipment and a medium-format camera, which he tethered to his computer to show his subjects their images. He deliberately chose a neutral background. “I wanted to treat them all in a dignified way, and remove them from the way we often see homeless people portrayed,” he says. “Just look at the individual. There’s nothing more engaging than looking at someone and making eye contact. You want to know about them.” 

We didn’t see these images until they were shown to us by Alexis Sawyers at the Mission. We hoped we could publish them in the magazine to highlight some of the reasons behind homelessness, and the good work the Mission does to support those on the streets. Writer Frances Walsh interviewed Payne’s subjects so we could present their stories along with the images. We’d like to thank Brenda, Hare, and Bryan for their generosity. We also hope, of course, that this story inspires you to donate or volunteer to assist the good work of the City Mission. Visit to find out more.

Bryan [surname withheld]

Sleeps on the streets and under bridges in Auckland, and begs on lower Queen Street.

Basically it’s just bad luck I think. I’ve been on the street coming up for six to seven years now. I’m originally from Kaikohe. My mother passed away in 2000. Then my uncle and aunty passed away within months of each other, and I was very close to them. After they passed, I was all alone. I was living with a partner at the time in Papakura. I was a residential youth worker for CYF [Child, Youth and Family]. I was a health and safety rep and a union delegate. I started to address issues that had been hushed up and management tried to get rid of me. I quit.

Then I started having relationship troubles and everything went downhill from there, to the point where I was walking into Work and Income and the Salvation Army and begging them for help – it was like they just didn’t care. At the time I was staying in a motel in Manukau. I was on the benefit. Once my rent went out I was left with $46 to live on. The people across from my room left their door open. I could see a wallet. I took $75. There was $1500 in there but I only took enough for some food, smokes and a session. I hated what I did. I went back to my room knowing I was going to get caught. Sure enough the cops turned up and arrested me. That’s when things really got rocky. I had to leave that motel. I got 100 hours’ community work.

I was on the streets around Manurewa and Manukau for just over a month. I slept in parks and bushes. I’d look for empty houses, sleep in garages. You’re always worried that you’ll get caught. After two days rough sleeping, you’re walking around like a 70-something-year-old. I ran into an old colleague and he mentioned a night shelter on Airedale Street [closed in 2012], so I came to town. Then I shot up north. That didn’t work out because there’s no work up there. Support and kindness can only last so long before the financial side of life starts to kick in and affects those around you. I came back to Auckland.

It was the scariest moment of my life when I became homeless. Everything flashes past your eyes. I got myself into the justice system again when I come to town. I shoplifted a flask of wine for one of the guys out here. He was going to give me $25 so I could go and buy me some synthetics. I ended up getting caught.

I started going to the City Mission to get something to eat and clothes. Because it’s so tiring living rough, I got into using meth for four-plus years. Ninety-eight percent of streeties use. Then I just had enough of P. I was too tired of being too tired of being too tired. I was up in rehab for 104 days. I loved the programme – it opens your mind up. But I got discharged because I went to a pokie bar. I get bad anxiety attacks – when things and life go well I start panicking because I’m just not used to that. I don’t know how to explain it, everything just comes at you and gets smaller and smaller.

I’ve used three times in the last three months. Since I’ve come out of rehab I try to have three meals a day, which is the easy bit. I have a lot of time. I beg to keep myself out of trouble. If I wasn’t I’d probably go looking for meth. I’m using synthetic at the moment, even then I don’t really like it but it makes it a lot easier to sleep. I wake up at 6am and beg till I drop. At three or four the following morning I go to bed. If you’ve had enough weed or synthetic during the day, bang, once you close your eyes you’re asleep. Even before I started begging and without the meth I was up two or three days straight because of that horrible thought of having to try and sleep. The drugs make sleeping a hell of a lot easier.

There’ve been times when I’ve been absolutely down and out, have lost all hope and just out of the blue someone will turn up, and they go out of their way to try and give you what you want, not what you need but what you want, which is very different. I need a warm blanket, for example, or I want $100 to get meth. People will give that $100. The other day one of the other guys asked someone for money. He said, “No mate. I’m just as fucking broke as you are mate.” And I said, “Do you live in a house?” and he said “Yeh,” and I said, “Well, you’ve got a lot, you’ve got heaps.”

Now I’m trying to get indoors. At the same time I don’t want to because I have friends out here. I’ve lost a lot of friends this year. The reality is you beg, do drugs, or die. For me this life has become a habit. I’m 40 now. Even though I want to change, this is what I’m used to. You find a place and then it breaks down when it comes to paying the bills, buying food, getting work. It’s easier to pack your bag and walk out the door.

Brenda Fenton

Sleeps behind the Central City Library and begs in midtown, on Queen Street.

I’ve been on the street for years and years. My mum was homeless too. She was 15 when she had me. She was a prostitute on Karangahape Road. She couldn’t make it to the hospital so she had me under Grafton Bridge. She was alcoholic and into drugs. My uncle Christopher heard me screaming and the police came. I was whanaued out in Helensville, to an old lady who my mum said was my grandmother. Then my mum came and brought me back to K’ Road. Then we went to Whāngārei. When I was eight, I was sexually assaulted by my mum’s ex-boyfriend. He’s in jail now. My mother’s up in Whāngārei. My partner [Kepu] contacted her through Facebook. She says she can’t afford to look after me and pay for my medication. I feel bad every day when I see kids or teenagers walking with their mother. It’s hard.

I started shaking when I was about nine. Once the hospital told me that by the time I was 21 I’d be dead but then I accepted Jesus into my life. Now I’m 29 and I’m still here. I take tablets [Vitamin B] four times a day – they help with my nervous system and the shaking. I didn’t take them for a month and that’s when I had my accident; I fell over and split my chin open. A lot of people take advantage of me because I can’t do a lot of things by myself, like I can’t open bottles, or eat with a knife or a fork, or use phones without big buttons.

I read the Bible. I know Jesus looks after me because the other night I was crossing Queen Street and a man pushed me from the path of a bus. Kepu and me get picked up sometimes and taken up to the World Harvest Church [in Parnell] on Sundays. We’re begging for one of those cheap $20 phones so we can ring the pastor. Kepu’s been going to church for years. I met Kepu out here 10 years ago. I had a crush on him. We got together five years ago. Another girl liked him and I got jealous. But I got him.

The Mission helped me get a house in Otāhuhu. The neighbours are bad; they are too much into drugs and alcohol. They’re working girls, and their clients come and knock on my door at two or three in the morning. I’m not a prostitute. Kepu gets angry. He’s Christian. My youngest sister broke into the house. I think my stuff is somewhere in Whāngārei. That’s why I choose to come back out here. I’ve still got the house though.

I start the day at the Mission for breakfast, or I hang out at the library with friends, or I go on the internet in the library. Sometimes one of the library workers who knows me brings me a coffee. Then I sit outside Wendy’s or anywhere where I can get food. When some people give me money they ask me what I’m going to spend it on. I say: “You can come with me. I’m going to buy a feed.” Some people ask me if on I’m drugs because I shake a lot.

The other morning an older man passed away in the doorway – somewhere near Dunkin’ Donuts, I think. Apparently his name was Craig. Another big man passed away near the library. It’s all that bloody synthetic stuff [synthetic cannabis]. I’ve heard they put insecticide in it. Me and my partner don’t smoke it. Kepu used to do P. I said: “Pick the P or me.” So he gave it up.

The best thing that could happen to me would be if my mother gave me a kiss and a hug and said, “I love you”.

Hare Wihongi

Wihongi (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine) lives at Karetu House, a rest home in Greenlane. He spent many years in the now-closed Oakley/Carrington and Kingseat psychiatric hospitals in Auckland.

I’d like to start from the age of birth. I was born on 9 July, 1954. My mother, she died in 1974, 9 June, and my father died on 5 May, 1983. But my grandfather died 15 minutes before I was born. He left his name. He was Haretutewake Wihongi. Do you know what it means? Hare is short for Charlie. Tutewake means stand up and walk. I was born with poliomyelitis. I was born in Whāngārei Hospital. I grew up in Matawaia, in the Bay of Islands. We were in the wop-wops.

Back in ‘69 I was in that hospital [Oakley/Carrington] that got closed down, in Point Chev. I was there for epilepsy. The doctor I was under was Dr P.P.E. Savage. He was a mischief one. I went in there in 1969, didn’t get out till 1983. I said to myself: “This is freedom now.” But then I got transferred to Kingseat. And I had to go back and forth to court because of what happened in Oakley. They beated up a patient in there and the patient that they beated up was me.

I did some art in the hospital – a picture of a unicorn. I gave it away to my mother and father; the first one that you do you must give it away. And then the year after that I won two things. I won $4000 at the races. The horse is gone now. Silver Star. And another thing I won was car lotto. I gave the car to Mum and Dad. It was a Hillman Hunter station wagon. I’m lucky.

In 1988 I was down in Christchurch and I lived there till after the first earthquake in 2010. I was cleaning graffiti off walls. I moved up to Whāngārei because I missed my brothers. I’ve got nine brothers and no sisters. Mum and Dad were waiting for a girl: they tried too hard. I stayed up there for a couple of months. I was starting to do a bit of learning how to read and write. I came down to Auckland to get myself into a boarding house in Ponsonby, but it was too risky for me; if I had a fit I wouldn’t have made it down the stairs if there was a fire.
I got transferred to another place.

When I lived in the city I used to go to the City Mission every day. They were helping me to keep steadily with my anger problems and make me turn my life around. I had too many pressures. One cousin brought her brother into my house and she didn’t tell me that he had a sawn-off shotgun. I told them I would like them out of my house because they were using me – getting in my benefit and using it on drugs and alcohol, also P. The house got renovated because of the P.

If I have any problems now I go and see the nurse or any of the staff. I used to beat up women. Because when I was in Oakley I was beaten up. Not only that. I was given a lot of drugs. I just say no to that now because I don’t feel right if I have drugs. I say to myself, “you’re killing yourself”. I’ve even given up smoking. And gambling. Given up chasing wild women too.

I keep in touch [with family] by writing letters every four weeks. I still can’t write fast. I have problems with my spelling. I write in Māori. I will tell you my whakapapa: ko Maungatapere tāku maunga. Ko Ngāpuhi tāku iwi. My mum, she was Ngāti Hine. Tihei mauri ora. When I speak Māori to my friends and family that opens up the gate. I want to go back to Māori language instead of Pākehā language.

I am happy here because we get fed, and also we have games night. We play housie. All the sixes: clickety click; 69: up and down; 11: legs eleven; all the twos: 22; knock on the door number four. I’m a good housie player and also getting to the state of reading the numbers out.

I do a bit of learning songs. I’m a country and western singer. I like Kenny Rogers, Sir Howard Morrison, Prince Tui Teka, and Engelbert Humperdinck. I used to run marathons. It helped me to soothe my worries. Just chuck them behind me. Back in my younger days I used to run at school and play rugby.

I’ll stay here for a while till I get better.