Runtime - 6:07
On the broad footpath between Christchurch’s Antigua Boatsheds and Canterbury Museum, a large, Christchurch City Council sign explains the temporary changes to the walk and cycleway. “We’ve made Rolleston Ave safer,” it says.
But it is a homeless man who is making Rolleston Ave cleaner. Most days, with a broom or an improvised brush of dried cabbage tree leaves, Mickie sweeps the well-trodden footpath used by tourists, dog walkers, cyclists and pedestrians in one of Christchurch’s most popular precincts. As he says, “These leaves don’t sweep themselves.”
Mickie’s sign, a handwritten piece of cardboard secured with a border of stones under the chain link fence of the Botanic Gardens, is smaller but to the point: “HOMELESS JUST NEED HELP PLS / FOOD OR MONEY PLS. It is surrounded by a book, a backpack and a takeaway coffee cup for the spare change given by passers-by. He stores his blankets, he tells Frank Film, in a locker at the library.
“This is what I do for my homeless job. I push a broom and if anyone wants to give me change, then they’ll put the change into my container. If they don’t, well, that’s actually their prerogative. If they want to put money in your container, they do. If they don’t, then they don’t.”
As he talks to Frank Film, a man yells out his thanks for Mickie’s parking advice, a woman who works nearby gives him a takeaway hot chocolate. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for keeping it nice and clean.”
Others – the blazered punters guiding tourists along the Ōtākaro Avon River, kayakers paddling between the riverbanks, cyclists commuting to work and tourists dragging their wheeled suitcases from the bus stop – appear oblivious to the bent figure clearing the path of leaves and rubbish.
Mickie says he is one of 25 people sleeping rough on the streets of Christchurch in the bitterly cold nights of July, but the exact number of homeless people in the city is hard to verify. Some statistics include those in emergency or temporary housing; support agencies are quick to point out that people begging on the streets are not necessarily homeless; those genuinely sleeping rough may be keeping a deliberately low profile.
New research from Christchurch City Mission says about 30-40 people are sleeping on the streets in the Christchurch inner city at the moment, while a further 100 or so move between the suburbs and CBD. The rising cost of living and the lack of affordable housing, it says, is driving an increase in general homelessness. Come summer, the number of people sleeping on the streets may double or more as more people move into the inner city.
Last night, Mickie tells Frank Film, he slept in a doorway. Not good? “No,” he says, breathing out cold air.
Do people look after him now? “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t – that’s the way it goes.”
Mickie came to Christchurch from Wellington where he spent time as a child at the Home of Compassion in Wellington.
“That’s where my parents threw me, because my parents couldn’t handle me,” he says.
On some days, he is joined by Kelly who comes to help or just “keep him company”.
“We’ll watch people go by, we’ll say, hello – how are you? Have a conversation if they want a conversation, put the smile on the face,” she says. “We could be down here on our very worst days and we’ll still smile… Hi, how are you? Sometimes we wonder if we care. But…”
Kelly was homeless at 17, when she was “popped out of foster care”. After a brief time with her mother – “We didn't mix” – she moved to Auckland where she was, she says, one of the city’s first street kids, sleeping in doorways, eating out of rubbish bins, taking shelter under cardboard if she could find cardboard, learning about drugs, learning how to be a “working girl”.
“So I’ve not had an easy life.”
She still battles with mental health and drug and alcohol issues; her children are in foster care, “but they’re all together, which is kind of good.”
Red, known also as Ginge, sits on the footpath reading a book close to Mickie’s gear. He too went through the foster home system, now he sleeps where he can. Sleeping on the streets can be dangerous but he has hot spots, he says, “safe spots where we don’t get bothered by the public.”
“I’m definitely wanting off the streets,” says Mickie. “I hate being out here. But look what I do for everyone. I keep the place nice and clean for the cyclists, the skaties and the scooter boys. Time’s going to heal everything, even a home. That’s what I’m aiming for, it’s time.”
For now, however, it is time to get back to work.
“Well, sir,” he says with barely a nod, “I’m going back to my brushing.”
Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Andy Johnson
Writer: Sally Blundell
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair