A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Work of St Vincent de Paul

De Paul House 1

de Paul House

By Catherine  McClintock

What does “homeless” mean?  What is a “homeless family”?  Until 10 years ago I did not understand the meaning of either but after 71/2 years working as Manager at de Paul House in Northcote Auckland and being a Board member for 4 years previous to that, I now have a greater appreciation of the pain and anguish these families suffer here in New Zealand.

Families presenting at de Paul House for emergency accommodation are usually desperate and transient with few options. The profile of a “homeless family” is diverse but things in common are bad credit ratings and a level of dysfunction either through a major crisis or generational history.   If the cause is a major crisis such us unemployment, health issues or the breakup of a relationship the solutions can be relatively straightforward. These families only arrive at de Paul House because they are physically and emotionally exhausted trying to stem the tide against them.  The spiral from just coping to homelessness is frighteningly fast.   On the other hand if the cause is years of dysfunction due to lack of boundaries and parenting skills the road is much harder.  In cases like this debt is usually out of control, they have been living a transient life for years and there are often language barriers, health issues and lack of stable schooling for the children.

To add to the complexities, families in either category can come from vastly different backgrounds e.g. very well educated to uneducated, highly skilled to basic skills, highly articulate to illiterate, previous high income earners to beneficiaries, parents who desperately love their children but have never been loved themselves.  The reasons are many and varied and it is these issues that we endeavour to remedy in order for the family to live independently and sustain housing.  The one thing all these families have in common is the love of their children, and their resilience, determination and desire to make a better life for them.

The mission statement of de Paul House is:
“We will provide, in a spirit of justice, charity and humility as exemplified by St Vincent de Paul, quality temporary accommodation and community support services for vulnerable families.  In this spirit we will assist families to remain together with dignity and to achieve and sustain their independence”.

At de Paul House we do not have a magic wand to wave to fix everything, rather it is a partnership between the family and our very able staff who help unravel the issues, work out a plan to address the most serious and together with the family work towards solutions.  This is not rocket science!  The families learn new ways to deal with their challenges, they gain confidence in themselves, their health improves, their children are happier and through sheer hard work they turn their lives around and they regain hope.  I liken it to a rosebud that slowly opens into a beautiful flower.  To see the stress leave a mother’s face after only a few days of warmth, security and support or to see a Dad stand straighter and laugh again with his children is priceless.

What does this mean for staff?  Yes it is challenging but the rewards are great.  The families we deal with feel the de Paul House staff give a lot to them, but in fact the staff receives far more from the families.  When we see families move from hopelessness to independence it has a magical effect on us and it makes sense of what we do each day. We also enjoy a very high success rate with 95.4% of families leaving de Paul House Emergency Accommodation over the last 3 years sustaining their HNZ homes.  This means the children can attend the same school, the family becomes part of a community and the effect of stability in their lives, often for the first time ever, is immeasurable.

I have recently left the organisation and it was a privilege to be involved with the “homeless” and to gain their trust which has often been abused by so many others. I have loved my 25 years working in the community but feel advocacy is more important today than ever before and the technology era often complicates rather than simplifies things.  I despair of the challenges our families sometimes face when dealing with Government Departments.  The outcome with an advocate is often very different from that without an advocate – it should not be like this.

My final words are from a song by Joyce Rouse which reflects and honours all the people who have gone before me.

“I am standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
I am stronger for their courage; I am wiser for their words
I am lifted by their longing for a fair and brighter future
I am grateful for their vision, for their toiling on this Earth” 

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