The Calder Health Centre and Haeata help musician Christopher get his health back.

Thursday 16 May 2024

“The Mission is my family” – Christopher’s story

“I’ve lived on the streets. I’ve lived in penthouses. I’ve had the best of life. I’ve had the worst of life. The Mission is middle ground, it’s like home.”  

Childhood abuse and years on the street have taken a heavy toll on Christopher’s body.  But with care and aroha from the Calder Health Centre at Auckland City Mission – Te Tāpui Atawhai, Christopher is still smiling in his early 60s – and working towards his musical ambition. 

Always creative, Christopher has built stage sets, done hairdressing and run his own takeaway lunch bar, but his greatest passion has always been music. 

Christopher started playing at the age of three. His mother played the piano in the local pub: “She used to bring the whole pub back home at closing for sing songs around the piano, and she’d drag me out of bed to play Twinkle Twinkle and Mary had a Little Lamb – from the time I was three.” 

“Mum would play her classical records, like the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. I just fell in love with it. I’d say to myself, I’m going to play that one day. And I did.” 

In his twenties, Christopher regularly played the piano for fashion shows and gallery openings. He even played for the Governor-General at a Government House cocktail function in the 80s. 

But Christopher’s life has been far from easy. “I know what it feels like to be absolutely lost and without anybody or anything.” 

He has endured years of sexual abuse since he was a young child and ran away from home at the age of 14 when the violence became intolerable. He lived on the streets for many years, often working as a sex worker or an escort to survive. 

Christopher’s body has sustained extensive injuries from childhood trauma, the years spent living on the streets and alcohol use. 

“I’ve got injuries all over. You’ve got no idea. I’ve got a crushed neck, which gives me spasms and headaches. I’ve had dislocated bones all over the place. I recently cracked my kneecap. I actually can’t function anymore without painkillers.” 

Unable to work because of his injuries and living in a Kāinga Ora apartment, Christopher has been coming to the Mission’s Calder Health Centre for medical treatment for many years. 

At Calder, the Mission’s doctors and nurses offer affordable, trauma-informed health care and are experienced in addressing the complex health impacts of living in poverty and sleeping rough.   

Linda Murphy is part of the team at the Calder Health Centre and has been working with Christopher since he first came to the Mission. 

“This is an unusual general practice,” explains Linda. “Many of our patients have experienced homelessness and the work we do is complex. The majority of patients have co-morbidities. So they might have heart disease, but they’ll also have diabetes or cancer.  Then add mental health issues, drug or alcohol addiction and all the other trauma that they have experienced, and the health issues get very complicated.” 

The cost of medical care at Calder is low, so its services are accessible to all: “It is $16 per visit with the GP or nurse practitioner, and nobody is turned away if they can’t pay,” says Linda.  

The low cost means that Christopher can get the ongoing treatment and medication at Calder that he needs to live with his injuries and other health conditions. 

For Christopher, the trust that he has with the doctors and nurses at Calder is important: “None of the practitioners here ever show judgement.” 

Linda’s role at Calder is one of the ways the Centre is special – she is the Health and Social Services Coordinator. Because so many Calder patients are living in poverty or on the streets, she connects them to social support that they might need in addition to their medical treatment, such as food or housing support. In Christopher’s case, this has included working with him to access his disability allowance and food grants, manage his finances and accompanying him to hospital appointments. 

“Linda’s been the most incredible support. Every time I’m here, she makes a point of coming out to check if I need help with anything.” 

One of the most important ways she’s supported Christopher is just by caring. 

“I come here because I often just feel so alone these days and Linda’s always there for me.” 

“Loneliness is a huge health issue,” says Linda. “Socialisation is an essential part of being human and being healthy. For many older men especially, their social network becomes very small. The isolation can be quite dangerous.” 

According to the World Health Organisation, people lacking social connection face a higher risk of early death, and social isolation is linked to anxiety, depression, suicide and dementia and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. 

“The Mission is my family,” says Christopher. “The people here have always got a smile for you. They’re here for everybody. It’s a really, really important thing to know that there’s somebody there for you who does actually care. It saves people’s lives.” 

Just a few steps away from the Calder Health Centre is the Mission’s community dining space, Haeata, and Christopher tries to come for a nutritious, freshly-cooked meal most days. 

“Originally I came to the Mission for the doctors.  And then I discovered the food at Haeata.” 

“I’ve never been a huge one for eating. But I started coming in every morning so I would have one meal a day and get healthier. I have cornflakes with fruit salad on top. I always have porridge with brown sugar. And the main meal. The food’s amazing. I’m happy with that, one meal a day with my meds and vitamins.” 

Haeata has another draw for Christopher – a piano. 

He has few opportunities to play the piano these days. So from time to time, he’ll sit down at the piano when he comes in to Haeata and play the music he loves. 

“I’ve had a blessed life. I really have,” says Christopher. “I’m very lucky. I’ve had heartbreaks as well. But I’m 61 and I’m still smiling.” 

And Christopher has a dream: 

“I’ve had a colourful life and I actually want to turn the whole thing into a musical. Honestly. It would be a magical show!” 

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