The joy is evident on Potoz’s face as she walks around the little cottage in West Auckland that she shares with her partner and younger children. With the help of Auckland City Mission and Housing First, Potoz finally has a place to call ‘home’ for the first time in her life.
She proudly points out the homemade paper picture frames from the $2 shop filled with photos of her children. “I haven’t finished yet, I’m going to get some more photos and make it look really cool”.
At 36 years old, Potoz’s life now is a far cry from her childhood which she describes as the worst imaginable. She says the Mission’s help in her adult years enables her to provide her children with the safe, loving family home that she never had.
Her nickname came at an early age. In school, she was the shortest in her circle of friends and gained the name Poto, which means short in Māori. The ‘z’ was added by someone she met on the streets who later became her best friend.
Potoz was only four years old when she was removed from her mother in the far north and put into social welfare custody then eventually into the care of her father’s family. When her paternal Nana passed away, she was moved from one family member to the next. At the age of 11, after years of abuse and feeling like an outcast with no roots or true friends, Potoz walked out of school and hitchhiked to Auckland.
Being a young girl, her plan was simply to escape to the big city. She made up a story that convinced most people who gave her a ride – except the last person who simply saw a lost girl then called the police.
Potoz was put back into the social welfare system and placed with carers. She was happy until a Family Group Conference session was held in Kaitaia. Suddenly placed back with family once again, she slowly started to adapt, this time with her paternal Nana’s sister.
Treated poorly by her family, Potoz escaped again at the age of 16, after a decade of being physically and sexually abused by those who were meant to protect her – her whānau. She left school and this family behind in exchange for life on the streets in Auckland.
Potoz found a new place to live under the bridge at the bottom of town. The street whānau – other people experiencing homelessness – became her family and it was with them that she felt finally felt accepted and loved. That was when Potoz was first introduced to the Mission.
“I used to hang out at the Mission in Hobson Street. It’s where I went to get food and see my street family and get support,” she says.
In her new world, Potoz’s traumatic childhood caught up with her. Alcohol and drug addiction became a part of life as she moved from bridges to abandoned buildings. Methamphetamine, or P, eventually became her drug of choice. “The drugs were all I knew. I used because I didn’t want to think about the past anymore.”
Potoz had children while living on the streets and in emergency housing, but her addictions and transient lifestyle meant she couldn’t look after them. When her tamariki were removed from her care, she was worried that history would repeat itself.
She was living on the streets when she met her partner, and they have now been together for almost eight years. ”When I met my partner, he said ‘it’s either the P, or me’. I knew then that I had to change. I wanted my kids back. It took me a while, sometimes I fell back into the drugs, but I finally got clean with the help of my partner and the Mission – and I’ve stayed clean.”
Once sober, Potoz finally had care of her children again and, with the Mission’s help, has created a loving home for them.
Her desire to help others extends beyond her children. Potoz was keen to give back to the community that nurtured her and showed her love in the early days. She became a part of the Auckland City Mission Client Committee. The Committee is a group of current and past rough sleepers who provide advice and guidance to the Mission on service direction. Potoz was elected Head of the Client Committee, a position she held for three years until recently.
Potoz says, “I gave it up because I wanted to concentrate on my kids and myself. I have come a long way. I’ve been clean since 1st January 2017 – that’s over four years now – and it’s time for me to put my family first.”
She has been in her whare with her partner and younger children for more than a year now and appreciates her new life every day.
“I feel grounded and safe. I have a real home that’s mine for the first time. Even though I’m only renting, I have this and it’s more than I have had previously. It’s my temporary kingdom until I can one day buy a whare to definitely call my own.”
The second-hand donated kitchen table and lounge suite help make her home comfortable. Potoz is also proud of her new purchases from The Warehouse – a microwave, a complete crockery set and coordinated bed linen. It’s the first time she has had something matching and new.
As Potoz looks around her home, she feels proud of how far she has come and looks forward to what the future holds.