Mount man spent Covid pandemic living in a cave
Awhi is living in a cave surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in New Zealand. Some residents want him gone, but he says it's the only shelter he can find. TONY WALL investigates.
The homes around Mt Drury Reserve in Mt Maunganui could feature on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Immediately opposite the reserve – known as Hopukiore to Māori – is the holiday pad of economist and former political aspirant Gareth Morgan, valued at more than $10m. Many other homes have multimillion-dollar price tags.
During lockdown, the streets have been busy with foot traffic, as Lycra-clad locals get their exercise in.
If you are walking away from the beach along Pacific Ave and glance to your right, you’ll see a peculiar sight.
A small cave at the base of the maunga has been turned into a campsite. Someone is living here. A stand-up paddle board has been laid across a table for privacy, creating a makeshift kitchen area complete with gas burners and pots.
Inside the cave, there’s a bed raised off the ground and a small set of shelves acting as a pantry. There’s even a patterned mat on the floor. There’s no room to stand up and the walls are covered in graffiti.
In pre-colonial times, the area was used as a carving school. The name, Hopukiore, means to catch rats; rat’s teeth were used as blades in carving chisels.
Early Māori are thought to have used the caves as burial sites. In more recent times, teenagers would light fires and have parties.
This particular cave is home to a 64-year-old man called Awhi (Ngāi Te Rangi/Waitaha), who sports a beard of biblical proportions, shorts and a colourful scarf.
When Stuff called, he was standing at the entrance munching on a simple meal of rice and noodles in a takeaway container, supplied by a homeless charity.
He says the cookers are mostly for show, “so people don’t keep on asking me ‘are you OK?’.”
Awhi says he’s been living in the cave since the start of the Covid pandemic last year. Previously, he’d been living in a local park, but was moved on as the country prepared to go into level 4 lockdown.
“They were cleaning the park up, I had to go and find somewhere else to bloody sleep, eh.”
Why the cave?
“There’s no housing out there, mate. It was the only place I could find shelter, in the rock. It might seem pretty grim, but to me it’s just a shelter, somewhere to stay warm.
“There’s a lot of other people in the world today that are worse off than I am. Who am I to complain?”
Awhi might not be complaining, but some of his neighbours are.
“They’re all millionaires along here,” he says. “They would rather get me out of here. They had a meeting of the residents about me being here. They had a thing with the Tauranga MP, he got on to the council.”
(Morgan says he’s not one of the complainers. “I’m not at the beach that often and don’t know anything about this,” he says.)
Simon Bridges. File photo/SunLive.
But Tauranga MP Simon Bridges confirmed some residents living near the cave approached him a few months ago, concerned about anti-social behaviour.
“It’s not so much [Awhi], they tell me, but it’s more the mates and hangers-on that come along – drinking, parties, noise ... graffiti, breaking into nearby building sites – even fires.”
Bridges wrote to Tauranga City Council in April saying Mt Drury/Hopukiore was a “Tauranga taonga” enjoyed by families and tourists, and he was concerned the anti-social behaviour would only increase.
“I accept the people involved will probably need social assistance and social housing, and I am keen to help you with this in terms of liaising with government departments,” Bridges wrote. “The issues should not be left unaddressed, however. Inaction would be highly regrettable.”
Mount Drury. Photo: John Borren/SunLive.
Council chief executive Marty Grenfell wrote back, saying: “I’ll have our team look at what steps may be required to address or curb this type of behaviour and ensure the same concerns are raised with the police.”
Bridges says that was the last he heard. He also got in touch with the commissioners who replaced the councillors when they were sacked last year, but still nothing happened.
Is it a case of Nimbyism (Not In My Backyard)?
“We can say it’s Nimby, snobbishness, but ... if I had a couple of million dollars of mortgage there I might feel the same.
“I acknowledge it’s complex, and we don't want to lack compassion here. It’s saddening at every level.
“It's a very 2021-type problem, and it’s also a fairly accurate metaphor for Tauranga today – you’ve got the most expensive properties in New Zealand outside of Auckland, up against homelessness and social problems.”
Bridges says the answer is to provide more permanent social housing for people like Awhi.
“Five years ago this would have been sorted. He would have been put into some form of social housing. Today, everyone from the government – local, central – wash their hands of it.”
Stuart Goodman, the council’s team leader for regulation monitoring, says Awhi has been sleeping in the cave for more than 18 months and “as he is homeless, we are not able to move him”.
Council staff have been connecting him with support agencies and making sure the site is kept tidy, Goodman says.
“The man is willing to move into a suitable house, but due to lack of availability this has not happened. He is not prepared to move into the men’s shelter, for personal reasons.
Looking up from Mount Drury. Photo: John Borren/SunLive.
“Homelessness is a sad and complex issue and is never an ideal situation. It will take a whole-of-community response to address it.”
Awhi says he would prefer to stay in his cave and Laura Wood, co-ordinator for the charity Under the Stars, which feeds Tauranga’s homeless, says that’s not unusual – some people struggle to transition from the street to indoor accommodation.
She met Awhi for the first time a week ago.
“I heard there was a guy living in a cave, and we went and dropped off some food. He seems very personable – he’s got an awesome space there.”
Wood says the government’s approach to rough sleepers this lockdown has been much different to last year.
“Last time, there was a very conscientious approach to do all they could to get everybody into motels and off the street and the government stepped up, the agencies took on the people and did an amazing job getting people where they wanted to go.
“This year, that hasn’t happened. The agencies are working with the people they already have on their books, but because there hasn’t been any additional motel space made available, they’re not able to take on additional clients, which has left many more people out on the streets and in tents and stuff.”
Part of the problem is that, unlike last time, there has been no certainty around the length of the lockdown, making it hard for agencies to plan, Wood says.
“Agencies are working together to get people off the streets. It’s at a much smaller scale than last time, but it is happening.”
Simone Cuers, manager of The People's Project in Tauranga, says a “critical” lack of affordable housing in the city is placing people under stress.
The organisation is part of a council-led strategy called Kāinga Tupu: Growing Homes which is aimed at addressing homelessness.
“Many people ... placed in temporary accommodation during the 2020 lockdown are still living in those temporary options. We’re looking forward to seeing a more affordable and appropriate housing supply coming on board ... so we can house everyone in permanent housing,” Cuers says.
Awhi says he’s been visited by police and council staff and “come to an understanding”. They can “moan and groan”, he says, but they can’t move him on. “There’s no housing out there.”
He says efforts last year to get people off the street didn’t achieve much.
“They just took them from one situation, put them into another situation, but they’re all still together, they're all still homeless, it’s not going to change their way of thinking or living.”
Awhi, a father of five and a grandfather, used to work in forestry and as a builder.
“My family were from here. I went to school, went away, got married, had children, my mother died, so I came home.
“Things didn’t work out at home, so I just hit the road again.”
He’s been homeless for several years, but doesn’t mind. There are toilets and showers nearby, and he catches fish from rocks around Mt Maunganui.
Twice a day he goes for a ride on an old BMX bicycle. At the moment he’s toilet training a puppy for a friend.
A bedraggled teddy bear stands guard in a tree – a leftover from the first Covid lockdown when people were displaying bears for solidarity – and toy cars left behind at the beach by children decorate the cave entrance.
Awhi says the cave is relatively warm. “Whatever the temperature is outside, it’s gotta be the same temperature inside.”
To prove this, he retrieves a small temperature gauge, showing 13 or 14 degrees.
He’s yet to have a Covid jab. “When they give me a time and schedule I’ll probably go there. But I don’t go anywhere to catch [Covid].”
Awhi enjoys the freedom of living rough.
“I’m not gonna live forever, but I’d like to stay [in the cave] as long as I can, until the time comes.”
If there’s one thing he could have, what would it be?
There’s a long pause.
“I don’t think there's anything out there that I’d like to have. I get up in the morning, the sun’s shining and I’m still above the ground.’’