Peter Burke breaks the chains of addiction and homelessness to live a life helping others. He generously talks to us about DCM, the school of hard knocks and why little old ladies love having him around.
I stayed on the streets when I first arrived in Wellington. Me and a mate had come down from the Bay of Plenty to go help rebuild Christchurch after the earthquakes, but when we were ready to go, the guy called to tell us there wasn’t any work going after all. We had spent all of our money to get to Wellington and for nothing. My mate decided to go home but I decided to stay. Back home I had been involved in a gang and done some jail time, so that was a big part of me not wanting to return.
I wasn’t home much when I was little. I left when I was about 14. I had a pretty rough and hard upbringing. I can’t blame Mum for it though and I don’t blame Dad. I used to, but I’ve gotten over it. If I could go back, I would tell myself to get an education and not to get into the shit.
For a long, long time I was addicted to drugs, then one day I just decided I didn’t want to be. I’d had enough of it and I was getting older. I’m 50 now and I just couldn’t live that life anymore. I’ve been trying to kick my addictions for a good 20 years and I’ve succeeded in the last five.
Breaking away from my old circle was the hardest thing to do, I had 30 years of being a gangster – using drugs and alcohol. All the friends I have known since I was 14, I've left them behind. The friends I have now I have made them in the last 4 or 5 years.
I thought, I’ve taken so much from society and now was the time to give back. I got it in my head that I needed a qualification, so I thought about going back to school. Stephanie (the Director of Downtown Community Ministry) thought it was a good idea and that I should go for it, so I did. I went up to Weltec and decided to study towards a Bachelor of Drug and Alcohol Studies which involves psychology, sociology, mental health and a lot about the Treaty of Waitangi. The first year was hard, I got ‘fail, fail, fail’. Then in my second year I got B's and C’s, and my last year was all A’s and B’s which was cool. Lots of tutors gave me one-on-one support. Now I want to be able to do counselling, and it’s just a case of putting it all together in the workforce and doing the deed.
After three years of study I needed a break, and the night shelter* offered me a job as a night supervisor. My job consists of making sure the guys are safe, have clean bedding, and if they need help with their issues I can direct them to the right organisations.
One really negative side to living on the street is that you're prone to getting sick. Some of the Bros and Sisters haven’t been to the doctors in a long time and addictions can make you really ill. People just aren’t getting the care they need. For people sleeping on the streets, it just brings you down. Down to a point where you're just used to it. You think it’s normal. It becomes a habit, like an addiction. You tell yourself “I don’t have to pay rent or bills”, you get fed if you beg… but not all homeless people beg though.
There are lots of generous people out there, but there are more people who just don’t want to know about homelessness. A lot of people looked down on me ‘cos I slept under bridges and in doorways. I found that the compassion in the 70’s was a lot more than the compassion now. In the end you have to think about why people are becoming homeless. Everyone has their own reasons why they are. For me, it’s because I couldn’t find a place and getting the basics together to go to WINZ was complicated. I had drug and alcohol issues as well as bipolar disorder, so when you put those things together, they are bad ingredients that lead to living on the streets.
If it wasn't for DCM I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn't have a house, I’d be on the streets still. They have backed me the whole way. They have never doubted me, never judged me and if I make mistakes, they don’t turn me down. When I came to DCM, I didn’t even have a bank account. They got one started up for me, and helped me to suss out the unemployment benefit. They manage all my money for me. They pay my bills, pay my rent, and then I get what’s left over.
I have my own place in Miramar now thanks to DCM. Having a home I can call my own has helped me. It’s not my car, it’s not someone else's couch, it’s not in a motor camp, in a boarding house or in some jobs orchard. It’s MY home. But believe it or not, I don’t sleep in a bed. I have one yes, but I choose to sleep on the floor. I guess I just got used to it (laughs).
The best part of being included back into mainstream society is helping other people and being acknowledged as that type of person. I keep myself pretty busy, I volunteer here at DCM and at St Aidan's church in Miramar. Some lovely ladies are in there and I help them out. I painted the church for them ‘cos I used to do a lot of that. They love me there because I respect them, and that’s what I do now – I respect people instead of disrespecting them.
To people who are having trouble, don’t be afraid to ask DCM for help. There are a lot of services. There’s food parcels, health care, budgeting advice… If you want the help, the help is here. If you're in need, we won’t judge, it’s not our job. Our job is to serve.
For other people who have been in my boots I say, "don’t give up on yourself!” To me, the highest power is yourself. Love yourself more. I’m a hard man, so if I can love myself, so can anyone else, it doesn’t cost much!
*The Wellington Night Shelter is a charity that provides emergency overnight accommodation for homeless men.
DCM assisted over 850 individuals last year. 59% of these experienced homelessness at some point during the 12 months and 27% were without any kind of shelter (i.e. sleeping rough, sleeping in their car). Of the 850 people seen, 75% were male and 25% were female. DCM continues to support about 150 people per week. DCM is one of One Percent Collective's partner charities. If you'd like to learn more about their work and support them with your 1%, just click below.