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Wellington’s homeless find belonging in new garden

Matt Petrie (left) and volunteer
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In a small corner of Wellington city a miracle of community, generosity and ‘greenness’ is beginning to unfold and Wellington’s homeless are gaining a sense of belonging.

Thanks to the generosity of the Sisters of Compassion at the Soup Kitchen a prime piece of commercial real estate, just off Tory street, is being turned into an urban garden. It features a Rongoā (Māori herb garden), a communal meeting area and raised garden bed boxes of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

The homeless of Wellington are lining up most days from 8am waiting for the tool shed to open to start work, with the vast majority of the garden being built by them and other rough sleepers. Eventually, the fruit and vegetables from the landscape-designed garden will be used to feed them at the Soup Kitchen next door.

Matt Petrie (pictured above left) from the Home of Compassion, a social worker and kaiārahi for the project takes up the story…..

The work they do is phenomenal. I am knackered and I can barely keep up with them. They love the garden, they have taken ownership, they are proud of it and they want it to be wonderful,” he says.

Transformation

And in this process Matt is witnessing something special, the urban garden is becoming a place of healing.

A volunteer worker with Matt Petrie (right)

“For many people who come here they experience poor mental health, loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety and low mood but by working on the garden some of those feelings start being removed.

“They have more control back in their lives and can face the world more positively. They start to look forward and have improved self esteem and confidence. It’s a great outcome.

“There are people who experience extreme anxiety and find it very challenging to be around people but when they are together in a group doing something meaningful that just melts away a bit. People start feeling more relaxed and calmer,” he says.

Sustainability

Following the blessing of the site in November last year Matt and his ‘whāuau’started development work with resource gathering. They collected bits of driftwood, free wooden pellets and coffee sacks from neighbouring Cafe Havana . Meanwhile, donations streamed in from other businesses as well as offers of manual help from students at secondary schools, the wider community and passers-by.

Origins of the garden

A key purpose of the urban garden is to provide a sense of belonging and ownership to the homeless.

Research found many guests at the Soup Kitchen felt they didn’t have a place in the community or hope for the future, explains Matt.

Serving a minimum of 100 meals daily, the idea of growing kai and sharing it was important, but just as important was the sense of purpose it would give the homeless in being able to be part of giving something back, says Matt.

Tony (Taahe) Hema waters the garden

A priority for them was that they needed something to do with their time. As well as helping build it, once it is completed the urban garden will provide a programme of activities for the homeless and the chance to learn new skills, use old skills; to just connect and enjoy being together.

There will also be a paved seating area where people can make presentations, do carving or play music.

It will be a beautiful relaxing green space where people can make connections,” says Matt.

Garden Vision

Māori culture is central to the design of the garden created by landscape architect Maria Rodger. More than 60 percent of the Soup Kitchen’s regulars are Māori so the garden will reflect this right from the driftwood fence to the planting, which is being done by the Māori lunar calendar with the first crop being potatoes to be harvested for Matariki.

“People come in and say this is just like being on the marae back home,” comments Matt.

Art will also feature prominently with a four panel back fence mural and already there is a handmade mosaic on one of the planter boxes.

The urban garden will be officially opened in May.

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