Sometimes it's not just about getting housed but about staying housed. After spending four years on the street himself, Wellington local Alexi knows what it's like to be homeless more than most. These days, he's a proud part of the team at DCM who offer a helping hand to taumai at risk of losing their accommodation.
It’s hard enough to be granted housing, and for some people it can be just as hard to keep that roof over their head.
DCM understands that ending homelessness not only involves getting people who are homeless into housing, but also supporting people in danger of losing their accommodation. The reasons may be many and varied, but sometimes it comes down to housekeeping – or a lack of it.
That’s where Alexi and his team come in. Loaded with mops, brooms, cleaning products, energy and elbow grease, Alexi is part of DCM’s new home support service for people who are struggling to retain their tenancies and who may have received an eviction notice.
“We arrive to some pretty interesting situations,” he says. “But usually it’s stuff that’s fairly easily cleaned up, like washing dishes, wiping down walls and cleaning floors.”
He’s quick to explain that often the lack of basic housekeeping isn’t because the tenant doesn’t care. “A lot of the people we help – at DCM we call them ‘taumai’, meaning ‘to settle’ – have never had a stable, comfortable home. They might not know how to clean or keep the house nice. Even if they do they often can’t afford cleaning products and equipment.
“So we bring everything they need and we work alongside them, showing them how they can get their place clean and keep it that way.”
Alexi knows first hand what it’s like to be homeless. He spent four years sleeping rough around Wellington, often bedding down in the Botanic Gardens and keeping warm in the Wellington or University Libraries, reading.
While he says himself he “doesn’t fit the usual image of a homeless person”, Alexi’s story vividly illustrates how homelessness can happen to anyone.
Alexi moved to Wellington from Russia with his family when he was seven. He grew up in Wellington city and Upper Hutt, then studied psychology and criminology at Victoria University.
The first two years he studied well, but says he “barely went to university” over the following two. “I had to work to pay my rent, I was doing a lot of papers and I had a girlfriend who developed depression. I started drinking to deal with it all. Then I lost my job, dropped out of uni and moved back in with my parents.”
At the end of 2011 Alexi’s parents decided to move to Australia. “My father said he’d rather fight snakes than earthquakes. And at the time I thought that was rather fortunate as I’d become too reliant on my parents. I’d become lazy and was drinking far too much.
“So I decided, perhaps rather foolishly, that the only way I was going to stop drinking was if I didn’t have money to drink. The logic at the time made sense… So I went on my own adventure.”
Alexi’s “adventure” meant four years of homelessness, all the while trying not to appear in need. “You learn about places that provide some basic amenities, like showers. You conserve your toothpaste and toothbrushes. You wash your clothes – or at least I did – in public toilets. I generally tried to look after myself. I didn’t like the idea of looking homeless.”
Alexi didn’t beg – he didn’t want to ask for help, even from his family. But he quickly discovered where to find free food. It was while collecting food at Wellington’s Free Store he heard about DCM and how it could help.
With his passport – his only form of ID – about to expire, Alexi knew he needed to act to fix his situation.
“I did try to talk to WINZ once. I went into the Lower Hutt office and told the receptionist about my situation. She told me to wait. I waited for four hours but no-one came, so I left.”
He had better luck at DCM, which over the past year has supported more than 1000 Wellingtonians who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
“So I came to DCM and talked to Regina, one of the social workers. We immediately worked out a plan to get on a benefit, get a new passport, find a place to live and then get a job.”
With a four-year gap in his work history (and a couple of minor legal infractions from when he was still drinking), Alexi knew the best pathway to paid work was through volunteering.
“I asked DCM if there was anything I could do and I got to help out with the DCM Bookfair in 2016. My first day of work in more than four years! Then I kept coming in, asking if there was anything else I could do. I ended up getting one regular day volunteering in the foodbank and a paid day in DCM’s book warehouse.”
Alexi’s good work and reliability soon earned him a full-time paid role at DCM. “I was thrilled. It was fantastic. It was really, really good going off the benefit, not that I was on it very long. I love the security of not relying on WINZ. It’s great knowing that if you’re at work, you’re going to be paid, so you can focus on other things.”
And his work is now partly helping DCM’s taumai keep a roof over their head by learning to keep their homes clean and tidy.
“We’re not cleaners – we work alongside our taumai rather than doing it for them. We’re aiming to set up a system where we go in once a week, even just for half an hour, so taumai get into the habit of cleaning.
“I do understand our taumai’s perspective, how you get to the point of not caring. We’re trying to build pride in maintaining a home as your own place to be comfortable, rather than just a place to drop your clothes.”
“I know from experience that when the environment you come home to is tidier and cleaner, you feel more relaxed and things don’t seem as bleak. It’s really nice to be part of turning that around for people.”
If you would like to help DCM support people in Wellington who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, choose DCM for your 1%. Alexi and the DCM team would absolutely love to hire a Rug Doctor from time to time too – a donation of $100 would mean they could thoroughly clean for one of their taumai. If you're not in a position to give your 1% or would prefer a one-off, we'd love you to consider sponsoring a Rug Doctor carpet clean, get in touch for more details!