“I want people to be aware of what is happening in our own country,” says Nicola Bowden.
Bowden, a 26-year-old outreach worker with the Auckland City Mission, is devoting her career to making an impact on New Zealand’s social issues such as homelessness.
“Every age and ethnicity can fall into this trap. Any person at any given time can experience hardship by losing a job or having a traumatic life experience or mental health issues.
“That’s why it’s so important to have these conversations and not say it’s ‘us’ or ‘them’ – we are all in this together,” she says.
Bowden is at the grassroots level of New Zealand’s homelessness; she has been a full-time homeless outreach worker in Auckland for just over a year.
“There’s a lot of transiency through the country,” she says. So, although she is based in Auckland, the people coming through the Mission have sometimes travelled nationwide before ending up there.
“It’s not easy work. I’m on the ground walking into situations which are potentially violent and involving people who sometimes have backgrounds in substance abuse or gang affiliations, but it doesn’t scare me.
“Sometimes people are just frustrated that they’re not being heard.
They’ve told their story before and have been let down time and time again and fallen through the cracks of so many services, sometimes even before they were born,” she says.
Outreach workers go onto the street in pairs where they offer help to the homeless. Sometimes that can be offering a blanket and a hot meal or working with them for long-term support to find employment and housing.
“We go anywhere where homeless people are. That can be under bridges, in cemeteries, churches or tents.
“We first check if people are OK because a lot of people don’t come into the Mission to engage in our services.
“It’s about trying to engage with them so we might be able to support that person when they are ready – whatever that looks like for them.
“The other side of my job is a case management service, so that we can provide long term case management for people with highly complex needs – like chronic homelessness, a history of transience and violence, trauma, mental health or abuse.
“It’s difficult, layered stuff which means that person is really struggling to get their needs met. It’s a really long journey,” she says.
The rewards of her work are the times when she gets to see whanau reconnected or helping people into work or study.
“It’s fantastic when we see a shift in the way people carry themselves after finding meaning to their life, whatever that may be for them,” she said.
Within her work, Bowden is trying to break down the stigma and discrimination that is attached to homelessness and wants to inspire others to be more empathetic.
“I would encourage others to learn more about the situation and not shy away from some of the painful issues faced in our society.
“Value your own being, use your special voice. Indifference is lethal.
“Even if I am in a position in the future where I can work with governments or councils about these issues, I don’t want to disassociate with where I am now - with my feet on the ground,” she said.
*If anyone would like to be involved or volunteer with the Auckland City Mission, more information can be found on the website.