29 October 2017

When you are born on the wrong side of the tracks

In this Blog I would like to tell a story that is dear to my heart, and one I am very passionate about. It is a true story, and one that is common across our country. It is of national importance and topical right now, as we have a Prime Minister who has put herself in charge of child poverty.

Here is my experience.

About four years ago, having left my car at the office the previous day, I was being driven to work by my wife Kate and my phone rang. On the end of the line was a Police Office telling me they had found my car and I should come to the station to collect it. Turns out some teenagers had broken into the office, found my keys and taken my CQ branded company car for a hoon around Feilding.

The car was undamaged and apart from the inconvenience, I assumed that was the end of the story. Wrong. A short while later I received a letter from the cops stating I’m a victim (an interesting and new status for me) and would I be interested in a restorative justice process? Not really, why would I? I was hardly a victim. Why not just move on? That was my thought process.

But then I thought, let’s have a look at this process and see what unfolds. So I agreed and a date was set. Restorative justice is an opportunity for victim and offender (and wider family and community representatives) to meet and talk about the effects of the crime on the victim and hopefully reduce the chance of the offender committing further crimes. On the designated day I turned up and was shown into a big room filled with social workers, cops and, on far side of a table, two women sitting either side of a young fella with a cap pulled down so low only his chin was in sight. This was my first sighting of the young man who had taken my car. I took a seat and listened as the list of all the shit this young man had been up to was read out – he had been busy.

His name, it turns out, was Tim (for the Blog) and he is fourteen. The two women on either side of him are his mother and sister. They have been here before, the frustration is clear on their faces – no one is having fun.

It is my turn to speak. The expectation that I will say something responsible and profound is apparent after all I’m being called Mr Harvey. What am I supposed to say to this fourteen-year-old who’s in a pile of shit?

So …….. I say to his chin, ‘Why the hell you steal a Hyundai for?’ Police look at me like I’m no longer Mr Harvey, but the chin moves up and now I can see his mouth.

‘You pull any chicks in that car?’ I can see his nose now.

‘Nah’, says Tim (he speaks)

‘Me neither – it’s a shit car for pulling chicks’ (I ignore the Cops who are really not sure now)

I can see his eyes now because he’s looking at me. I expect he is wondering what have we got here?

We start talking – he’s polite, soft voice and tells me he gets into trouble following older kids after dark. He’s been kicked out of school and has lots of spare time to himself. I think what am I supposed to do here? I tell him thanks for not trashing my car, but next time don’t smoke in it.

Again, that’s potentially the end of the story. I’m sitting there while the social workers wrap up the session saying they would like to find Tim a ‘Big Brother’ from a scheme they have running, but they say there just aren’t enough ‘Big Brothers’ to go around. bigbrothersbigsisters.org.nz is a great organisation.

As I drive home in my ‘un cool – non chick pulling’ car, it bothers me there are not enough ‘Big Brothers’. I ring the cop assigned to this case, a very warm caring guy, who specialises in youth work (a growing industry it seems), and say, look I’m a bit old to be his brother, and I’m not Maori, but if Tim is up for it, so am I.

And so, our journey really begins. I get checked out, vetted and pass the scrutiny required to be a Big Brother. I also receive a letter from Tim apologising. This is funny as he has said sorry for stealing the wrong car, which I guess is easy to do if you steal enough of them.

A date is set for us to meet face to face, with his mother and the cool cop. I’m nervous. Why am I nervous? Is it the responsibility, the unknown, am I just trying to be a do-gooder (well meaning but unrealistic) and maybe my heart’s not really in it? What If I think he’s a complete tool? There are lots of unknowns until we sit down around the table and I realise this is a very nice teenager. I like teenagers. They are complex at times but I generally like their energy and sense of fun.

We talk about Tim’s journey and it’s one of few opportunities and poor choices. Lots of brothers and sisters and a mum, who is worn out from the slog. Dad died of a heart attack while working at the freezing works. They live in a part of town I have never ventured. A dead-end street that fits a scene from ‘Once were Warriors’, and this is in my back yard – the place that wins the most beautiful town;

Feilding.

We set some guidelines about behaviour, expectations, and what we might achieve in this newfound bond. Getting him back to school comes up in conversation and it appears the local college
won’t have a bar of him. Selling drugs for the Mob at school was frowned on, which is understandable. His mother is very welcoming and appreciative of my help.

Four years on we have forged a friendship, a bond of sorts. I have gained an insight that I did not really grasp before into just what being poor and Maori is like for a young man and his Whanau.

We did get him back to school for a while. Hato Paora is a local Catholic Maori Boys College who accepted the challenge. Initially as a boarder (lasted 3 days) then as a day boy (lasted 5 months). The intention was to try and break the bond Tim had to the destructive pull of the street and the local trouble.

Tim and I spent many fun days together, playing basketball, going to movies, laying concrete, and shooting the breeze. He is good company and a fun guy. This has been a very positive experience for me at least.

I wish this had a fairy tale ending, but it doesn’t. This is the harsh reality for many youth in our country. Last week I watched Tim and his whanau featured on TV1 Sunday program, as his older brother had died from a bad dose of synthetic marijuana. There was Tim kitted out in his Mongrel Mob gear looking tough at the camera. He has two children now that will call him Dad and the cycle will begin again. I am filled with a sense of frustration.

The reality is that Tim is not even at the bottom of the heap – there are people who have a lower standard of living than him.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants to do something about the poverty trap, and I applaud this. But it is harder to break than I ever realised as people like Tim simply do not have the ‘Social
Infrastructure’ that say my kids have. What do I mean by ‘Social Infrastructure’? It is the invisible stuff that surrounds every family that we take for granted – conversation, expectations, nutrition, community, lifestyle, hope, love, access to doctors, and much more.

So here are some of my learnings from my experience with Tim and his whanau:

  • He comes from a loving family, who are very polite.
  • They are good workers, but sometimes are not reliable due to the instability of their environment.
  • His Whanau are not involved with their Maori heritage or culture.
  • They live in a house that is damp and overcrowded.
  • Nutrition is not understood.
  • Saving money is not in their vocabulary.
  • They are surrounded by people who live from day-to-day with little hope of breaking out of the poverty cycle.
  • The family have many more health issues than I ever expected, which means they miss sports events, work, and are often fatigued.
  • Their lives are seriously disrupted when a member of the wider family comes out of jail.
  • The whanau face shame on a regular basis.
  • The police treat them with compassion and understanding – even though they can be frustrating to deal with.
  • And here’s a major surprise for me – they live in a fantasy world where they will dream about events that they are not able to bring into existence.
  • They exist in every town in New Zealand.

It is a bloody disgrace we have these poverty levels in Aotearoa and while this has been compounding since 1840, the pace has increased over the past few years.

So Jacinda – good luck with your bold initiative, and as New Zealanders we need to support this in every little or big way we can. I know I have not given up on Tim. I am looking forward to our next chapter and learning more about the working of the Mongrel Mob.

Ian Harvey (Harv)

Founder

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