Homeless on Napier Beach: Inside the lives of log warriors who build homes from driftwood
by cestlafranz.com ·
A log on Marine Parade beach in Napier, occupied by John until temporary accommodation was provided for him. It is one of the many beaches along the stony coast. Photography: Warren Buckland
As John* packs his limited belongings on a sunny morning in Napier, he glances at the makeshift driftwood hut on the beach off Marine Parade that was once his home
For John, this was a place of solidarity and self-actualization. Somewhere that could be far removed from a world grappling with a housing crisis, crime and the cost of living.
Like many on the beach, he can be described as a kind of warrior, trying to work with a complex system and those trying to keep it down while making the most of what life throws at him.
“I’ve been a little on the system. Everything is expensive and I can’t afford anything. Here I can get away from the world and find myself and my peace again.”
“As long as I budget it, I can get by week to week. I haven’t complained once since I’ve been here, and I appreciate everything that comes my way.”
John’s life in the cabin would soon be over. He’s on his way to the other side of Napier, where he’s been offered temporary accommodation in a hotel.
He has been working with housing support teams to try to provide a better life for himself and his family. He says he’s grateful for the opportunity and knows that once he leaves, someone else will likely take his place at the beach.
“I have children there. They are old enough and do what they want but the main reason I wanted a house is for my children to have a place they can depend on.
Advertise with NZME.
“I’ll give this up,” he says, pointing to the driftwood house.
At least four to five more are believed to live among the driftwood along the rocky, pebbled shoreline from Marine Parade to Awatoto and beyond.
This does not include those camping in cars, tents and bushes along the reserves.
The situations of these people vary. Some stay there out of necessity, others because they’re fed up with the system or are grappling with mental health issues or addiction. Many see it as an escape from the world around them.
“The way things are going, there will be more people on this beach than stones,” says John.
Today, Keith* visits the homeless on his bike, as he often does. He says that if he were rich enough to own some land and build a toilet building, he would offer it to them in a heartbeat.
“You meet a lot of good people, and some bad people, too,” John says of Keith, who welcomes him for a friendly chat or to drop off supplies, and of those living in homes across the reserve who complain.
Advertise with NZME.
“One guy also sold his house to get away,” Keith says.
“People used to live in the bush, until the council cut them all down,” he added, pointing to some of the small shrubs remaining in the reserve.
A Napier City Council spokesman said Napier Assist recently conducted a preliminary data count along parks and reserves within council boundaries and found 37 people there who had been identified as homeless.
John points to the hut a few hundred yards away.
“A guy just moved in next door here. From what I heard, he has money but he just wants his own space and to be part of nature.
“Everyone who comes here starts to connect with nature, it’s all about keeping the positivity.”
He says the positivity kept him going. Whether it’s mice gnawing at his bag, bitter temperatures, or human threats, he’ll always find a way to make it work.
“They realize that involving police and security is a waste of time,” Keith says of those working in central government and council services.
“They are trying to help as much as they can.”
Outside the Faraday cage
Down the beach there is a great view. A faux log cabin made of driftwood and decorated with black tarp and netting.
This is the home of Jim, a local legend who spends his days helping others who decide to live on the beach.
He has lived in the bush, around town and on the coast for about eight years and sees it as a liberation from the constraints of modern life.
“Bushcraft is challenging but better than living inside a house. A house is like a Faraday cage that strips you of your energy.
Some homeless people come to Jim for advice, as someone who understands their situation.
“I think I do a lot of mediation, counseling and policing. Although it takes a huge toll.
While people from agencies had come to see him in the past, they had recently left him alone.
Over the course of eight years, it was moved from about 400 places around Napier. Now, in his spare time, he studies various laws and regulations.
“I tried to ask for some funding because I had people improving themselves in these bushes. They were healing here and this is what people need.”
He says that once the bushes were cut down, he decided to “make a statement” by moving to his temporary spot on the beach.
“I’m pretty sure I’m 21 meters from the high tide mark and not on council land.”
Those at the beach praise Jim and his commitment to helping others. John says he was a good friend during their time together, and they often exchanged advice and stories.
A woman who owns a house next door says she loves visiting Jim with her family. She says people often help with food, supplies and even a canine companion, Sol.
There are several agencies involved in caring for people who are considered homeless, including Napier City Council, Napier Assistant, the Department of Social Development and the police.
Karen Bartlett, regional commissioner for the Ministry of Social Development on the East Coast, says she wants those sleeping rough to reach out to MSD service providers.
“When someone comes to us in urgent need of housing, we work with them to find a suitable place to stay.
“As a last resort, this may include emergency housing but our first step is to look at all the other options they may have to avoid homelessness. There are many ways we can support someone’s search for long-term housing.
Options include exploring private rental options, financial support to help them stay with family or friends, assistance with rent and bond payments for a new property and help negotiating with landlords to retain the rent.
There is also support for paying the bond and rent up front for a new place, as well as financial assistance with moving costs or providing rental cost coverage to the landlord.
A Napier City Council spokesperson says the state of homelessness in the city is alarming, especially for those directly affected by it.
“What we are seeing on the beach is indicative of a larger problem across New Zealand.
“We are working very proactively on homelessness, collaborating closely with a number of agencies and partners to identify a wide range of initiatives to address the situation.”
MSD, the What It Takes Trust and the police are the lead agencies responsible for providing support.
“The matter is complex and needs to be addressed carefully to ensure respect and integrity are maintained for those at the heart of the case,” the spokesperson says.
“Our Napier Assistance Team, along with the police and the international taskforce, are making regular contact with homeless people and we are developing a strategy and action plan to help alleviate the situation.”
The spokesman says solving the problem of people living on the beach is not easy, and points out that there are internal regulations to help strengthen support networks.
“As a council, we recognize that there are complex reasons for people either not owning a home, being refused help to live in or accessing temporary accommodation.”
These come in the form of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which restricts councils’ power to trespass on people’s property, particularly where they are not causing harm or affecting the safety and well-being of others.
The Independent Motor Vehicles Act 2023 also includes provision specifically for homeless people, stating that “freedom to camp violations cannot apply to people experiencing homelessness. Council enforcement officers must refer these people to social support agencies where appropriate.”
A council spokesperson says: “Public safety is our number one priority. If people’s behavior causes distress or anxiety to the public or causes damage to property, councils can and will respond. However, it is not appropriate to issue violations as the only way to address the problem.
The council is also working on a long-term homelessness action plan and housing strategy.
“We are also using a workflow process for all council members working in homeless settings to ensure a comprehensive and collective approach to managing the situation.”
*Names have been changed
Mitchell Hagman joined Hawke’s Bay Today in late January. From his base in Napier, he writes regularly on social issues, arts, culture and society.