I don’t think I will ever be able to fully understand what it’s like to experience homelessness. After hundreds of hours of conversations with our friends on the street, I have never heard the same story twice.

Much of my time is spent trying to tell stories that paint a clear picture of what it feels like to do it tough. Our friends are so gracious with their time and have built up a level of trust in Orange Sky through our amazing volunteers – it is a very good place to be as a storyteller.

The words of our friends give me a good indication of the real service we are providing to people doing it tough. Is it laundry? Or showers? Or connection? Or is it something bigger, more life changing? I might need a few more years until I have all the answers, but I feel like I got pretty close during the four days spent on shift with the amazing Uini family in Auckland.

Family is something that I have heard spoken about each time I visit Orange Sky shifts in New Zealand. Our friends talk about complex relationships that occur within families. In some cases, these relationships are a huge form of support; but when negative circumstances arise, they can be at the root cause of experiences of homelessness.

Which brings me to Eddie, the Uini family and Orange Sky New Zealand. Eddie’s story is very well known across New Zealand. In one sentence for the ‘un-uini-ightened’ (see what I did there), Eddie started Orange Sky’s free mobile laundry and shower service in New Zealand (supported by the team in Australia).

Eddie is the eldest of five children, with a Samoan father and a mother with a mixed heritage from Germany and the United Kingdom. The family all live together in the outer suburbs of Auckland. It is a bustling hub of excitement and at all times of the day, people are coming and going, eating together and supporting each other through words of encouragement (and, when needed, a few sharp words for the young ‘uns).

It came as no surprise to the family when Eddie started Orange Sky New Zealand. Eddie is a compassionate and gentle person who has spent the first 30 years of his life mentoring and looking after his siblings and anyone else he comes across who needs help. I can vouch for an amazing Uini hug when I am feeling a little overwhelmed!

Lesina (28), Elsie (26), Isacc (21) and Nathan (19) are the lucky siblings of Eddie and really admire the big man’s passion for helping other people. Of course, when Eddie asked if they would volunteer for Orange Sky, they said yes…but they were not sure what to expect, or even how they felt about the issue of homelessness.

I had the opportunity to sit down with each of Eddie’s siblings and talk about their experience. They all spoke genuinely and candidly about their perceptions of people experiencing homelessness before volunteering for Orange Sky. They had learnt to see people who were ‘down on their luck’ or living on the street as someone else’s problem. There was no motivation to stop, acknowledge the person and maybe even have a chat. This was caused by a mix of fear, not wanting to offer money and not knowing what would come next if they took the simple step of saying hello.

Nathan was very open of his view of people doing it tough.

“I would have walked with my nose at a higher angle and walked past instead of looking and talking with them. [Volunteering] has completely changed my views on homelessness. Playing cards, doing washing, having such a great conversation. It barely feels like I am actually going out to do some voluntary work, it’s like going out and having a game of cards with your mates, only you have a lot of mates now. It just grounds you and humbles you to know all these people at heart.”

All of the siblings have taken to volunteering like ducks to water. They were very open about the fact they probably wouldn’t have made the decision to volunteer if not influenced by Eddie, but now feel strange if they miss a shift and miss their friends.

Elsie puts it best when she says:

“It is so weird that I am actually volunteering for Orange Sky when you think about it. I stay right away from touching my siblings washing and sometimes avoid conversation as I feel like my conversation isn’t interesting enough. But I jumped, and I did it and I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”

It takes a lot of courage to be open about you past perceptions and admit to negative stereotypes that influenced your behaviour. But the Uini family want to act as a beacon of hope, an example for their community to believe in the power of acknowledgement, conversation and connection for our friends doing it tough.

It was so cool to hear Elsie close her discussion with this very point. Something that I have never heard before, but a powerful reminder of an aspirational existence where everyone feels connected to a community.

“I would really like for Orange Sky not to be such an anomaly and just an everyday thing for everyone to be out here doing everything they can for their fellow Kiwis.

Beyond that I guess, I hope and dream that Orange sky won’t be such a miracle for people and something that is available to everyone.”

The Uini family are united in their support of our friends

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