Rise issue 13 cover

Helping the homeless

She's known as Tash among Auckland's homeless people, and that's fine with Work and Income Integrated Service coordinator Natasha Robinson.

For the past two years, Natasha has worked exclusively with homeless people from her base at the Work and Income Service Centre in Queen Street, and earning their acceptance is all part of the role.

"They often have nicknames for each other, and once they got to know me, they gave me one too," says Natasha.

These are the men and women, with quirky names like Cinderella and Brownie, sleeping rough in alleyways and car parks around the inner city. They are also the invisible homeless - those forced to sleep on friends' sofas or floors.

People have different reasons for becoming homeless but in many cases it has happened because of mental health or addiction issues, says Natasha. Some prefer to sleep on the streets, but others are desperate to escape the life.

Natasha's goal is to help them get out of that lifestyle and into long-term accommodation.

She works closely with the Auckland City Mission and LIFEWISE in central Auckland, where homeless people can be connected with healthcare, counselling and accommodation services, as well as drug and alcohol advice.

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"Homeless people are often reluctant to come into a government agency office, but they are happy to talk to me when I drop into the centres."

Natasha makes sure homeless people get the benefits and financial assistance they are entitled to, so that money is no barrier to moving into accommodation.

"It's hard to find a job without stable housing, so helping people into accommodation is my first priority. After that, I continue to help them with employment advice."

One of the most challenging aspects is helping someone into accommodation only to find their behavioural problems have led them back to the streets.

There are also moments of great satisfaction, as in the case of Jon, a homeless man in his 50s, who approached Natasha on one of her regular visits to the Auckland City Mission.

"Like many homeless people, Jon was wary of outsiders and he observed me at the City Mission for several weeks before he spoke with me," she says.

Jon told his story of hardship to Natasha. He had worked as a labourer but an injury caused him to lose his job, and later his home, because he could no longer afford the rent.

"When I met him he was living on the streets and had lost hope," says Natasha.

She arranged for him to receive financial assistance and he was soon helped into a flat. He also received medical attention, which meant his injury gradually healed.

Recently, Jon contacted Natasha to let her know that he was well enough to return to work and had found himself a job. "He's working in the construction industry now, which is a fantastic result for him after everything he's been through," she says.

"It's the successes I have with people like Jon, when I know I've made a difference in someone's life, that keeps me motivated and loving my job," she says.