Being able to have a tasty, nutritious, hot-cooked meal once a week makes a world of difference to the people at the Hamilton Cathedral community meal.
Some of those served a with a plate of cooked mince, meatballs, potatoes and mixed vegetables, plus bread with spread, followed up by a cupcake — on February 25, when NZ Catholic visited — are regulars at the Tuesday lunchtime meals. Others drop in when the need arises.
But all of them have their own stories of hardship and endurance. Some of the three dozen or so people at the meal were generous enough to tell NZ Catholic about their lives.
Tony Smith (not his real name) struggles with addiction to alcohol, and has lived in a garage for about a year. Two years ago, Tony, now aged 60, lost his job as a laundry worker and eventually ended up on the street for 3 months, living in a tent.
Those were tough times. “Don’t do it in winter,” he said. “Get a tent and a sleeping bag.”
Tony, who is on the jobseeker support benefit, had varied experiences on the street. Once, a group of teenagers pelted his tent with rocks. But he also once had local MP David Bennett knock on his tent flap.
“I found it tough at the start because I felt the world was against me, but then I said — just snap out of it, mate,” Tony said.
After his street life, Tony was grateful to get a roof over his head, any roof. So when a man offered him the chance to live in a garage for a very low rent, he jumped at the opportunity.
“At the moment I am quite happy with my living accommodation,” he said.
He added that “All my kids are grown up. One is in Europe doing backpacking. And the daughter is married in Australia now. I said to them —don’t come back because I am not in dire straits. I am getting the benefit, I have applied for certain jobs.”
Tony was a regular at the cathedral meals when he was on the street. Now he turns up occasionally, but says he “loves them”.
Sitting across the table from Tony was Pete Miers, 65, who worked for many years as a painter/decorator and is now a superannuitant.
Living alone, he found the transition to living on the pension a battle at first.
“But I have learned to budget it now. But it does get tough,” Pete said. He sees the cathedral meal as “a help, in a sense”.” I don’t always come. But now and again, if I need it, I will come.”
Pete, who is a Christian, likes to give back to the community by helping out at a meal at another Hamilton church.
Looking around the room at others enjoying the meal at the cathedral parish centre, he said “for quite a lot of people, if it wasn’t for this meal, they would really, really struggle”.
Another who appreciates the service is Jack Gielen, who led the prayer before the meal. The prayer involved thanking God, asking for blessings for those who prepared and served the meal and remembering the sick
and needy of the community.
Mr Gielen, whose passions are suicide prevention and social justice for families, describes himself as “a little bit destitute”.
He said the meals are “wonderful, beautiful”.
“It really supports us. We depend on these meals. It gives us a sense of purpose in life. If we didn’t have this, we would more likely fall into a ditch along the ways of life. . . .There’s talk, fun, food and fellowship.”
Mr Gielen said there is a real mixture of people at the meal — including people living on the street, in halfway houses, hostels and night shelters.
One person who has heard many stories of hardship and endurance in the 27 years since the community meal started is organiser Kath Kenrick, who has been involved since day one.
“We don’t ask questions, we don’t ask for names,” Mrs Kenrick told NZ Catholic. “If people want to give us names, [fine]. I know a lot of names, but only because they have been here a long time. But there is no way that we ask who they are — we don’t ask anything about them. They don’t have to qualify in any way to come here — they just do.”
In fact, she said, the only qualification to receive a meal is that someone is hungry.
“We never ask, but we know just from word of mouth that some of them are in night shelters, and there’s no food on offer there, apart from a cup of tea. And the rest of them are in single accommodation that doesn’t allow for them to socialise or they can’t cook for themselves, they don’t have the skills.”
The cathedral community meals started in 1993. Invitations were printed and left under city bridges. But now there is no need to advertise, Mrs Kenrick said, as word seems to get around.
The activity was initially called The Covenant Group, she said, adding that it was an offshoot of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
“But we no longer sort of work under their auspices, so we don’t really have a name, we just feed the hungry. That’s what happens.”
A box is put out for koha at the meal, but the people give only what they can. A smattering of small change was in the box when NZ Catholic visited.
As far as the food is concerned, when the meals started “initially we begged for it”, Mrs Kenrick said.
“Then we grew our own garden down at Chanel Centre, and now we have a fund, there are all sorts of people who donate, and we use that. Other people donate the food, some people donate the money.”
The food served varies, but it is always a hot meal. “We never know what we are going to feed them because whatever is donated is what they eat,” Mrs Kenrick said.
Other people donate their time as volunteers. Every week, two young Vinnies from St John’s College in Hamilton help out at the meal.
Hamilton resident Karen Estrada has been volunteering at the meals for eight months. Originally from the Philippines, she was new to Hamilton and was looking for volunteer work, which she found through the Church.
Ms Estrada, 39, who also volunteers at a local library, enjoys helping at the meals. “I really like doing this — with all the smiles that come from the people that we feed every Tuesday. That is my happiness. It is what I get from them — and the ‘thank you’s’”.
“God would want more people to do this (volunteer) — to feel better about themselves — to do something for the community.”
When asked what keeps her going in this work, Mrs Kenrick said “I suppose it is a Christian initiative as much as anything, the need to serve others and to be reaching out. I don’t know really, I just do.” Then a broad smile broke out on her face and she said “habit”.
NZ Catholic asked Mrs Kenrick and some of the people at the meal what they might say to the Government concerning ways the people at the meal could be better helped.
“Come and find out — talk to the people like we do — be here,” Mrs Kenrick said. “So then you get the story first hand. Come and meet the people.”
Pete Miers had similar thoughts, saying “please listen to the public . . . listen to us”.
Tony Smith would tell the Government that more needs to be done about mental health.
“Mental health is a big issue in New Zealand,” he said. “They do not look after mental health people. Because there are so many that are just put on the street.
“That is my biggest [worry] because I have met a few and I know a few and I [have] got relations that are. Mental health is probably the biggest thing I ask.”