Escaping Ghosts

Dave has stayed at the Wellington Men’s Night Shelter many times over the last fourteen years and each time he has been trying to escape ghosts from his past.

As he looks back on his times with the Night Shelter, it has provided a refuge, a place to take stock, a place to find some trusted ‘friends,’  and a base from which to move on when he was ready.

When Dave first arrived in Wellington fourteen years ago, the Police were looking for him in his ‘home town’ of Auckland where a number of issues were compounding and he just wanted to escape.

In those days the Wellington Men’s Night Shelter was very different from what it is today. It was run more like an overnight prison; ‘guests’ were strip-searched as they entered, clothes were removed and placed in overnight storage, and they were issued a rather random choice of pyjamas for the night. At around 7.30am they were kicked back out onto the streets.  Dave recalls, “there was no privacy, you were lucky to get a single bed.  Mostly it was bunks, and there was little safety.” 

Dave found it hard to relate to some of the Night Shelter staff, however, he began playing chess with a staff member, Mike Leon, and gradually a friendship was formed. Trust was established.

Trust was not easy for Dave. The lessons of his life up to that point were very much about learning not to trust.

Dave first came to the attention of the police when, as a young four year old, he tried to please his mother. Recalls Dave, “My mum said she needed some money, so I went out to try and get her some…. later to get back home I jumped in a taxi and told the driver I would pay him when we got home.” Unfortunately for Dave, when he then opted to steal the cab driver’s wallet, the driver knew where to find him, and the Police were called.  Dave remembers, “Mum used to beat the crap out of me,” and with his eighteen year old mother unable to cope, plus their neighbours reporting fighting and yelling, it wasn’t long before the Department of Social Welfare removed Dave from his parent’s care.

The next time Dave saw his mother he was about six years old. “She came  to visit me and she introduced me to my brother, I remember being very proud.” However he saw little of his brother after that time and today he barely knows the two sisters that apparently came later.

For the next thirteen years, Dave was moved from one ‘childrens’ home’ to another. He has lost count of the number of homes, but recalls, “There wasn’t a ‘home’ in the North Island that I didn’t spend some time in.” Along the way, he seems to have missed out on schooling, “I think I only had about one year of ‘normal’ school education,” and he lost track of his family, “I didn’t know my dad, and believe I’ve got two sisters and a brother, but I don’t know too much about them,” he says.

He learned to smoke at a young age, “because smoking took away the hunger cravings.” Later he got into alcohol, drugs and associated petty crime. “If I didn’t have a phobia about needles I doubt if I would be here today,” is Dave’s way of explaining why he never succumbed to hard drugs.  By his mid-twenties he had over 200 convictions on his record. Prison had become a second home for him and a form of refuge. It was about this time he first turned up at the Wellington Night Shelter.

“I had done a lag in ‘Pari’ (Paremoremo prison)…it was tough….maximum security.” It was there Dave decided, “I’m not going back,” and he has managed to stay out of trouble with the Police for the last fifteen years.

After a lifetime of knocks and being told he was ‘no good,’ paradoxically, it was prison and his dealings with the police that also taught Dave that maybe he had some talents. “They used to keep telling me I was a ‘cunning little bugger,’ and I figured that was a compliment, and that perhaps I was clever.”  Prison also taught him to play chess and he found he was reasonably skilled at this challenging game. “I know I’m not a bad person, I just stuff things up from time to time,” concludes Dave.

It was over games of chess that he developed a good relationship with Mike Leon, the present Manager of the Wellington Night Shelter. Over the years Mike has featured in Dave’s life as a mentor and the Wellington Night Shelter has also changed, “today there is more respect, you are not belittled, it is safer and there is more privacy…..”

On one occasion when Dave awoke from a drunken binge to find himself in Christchurch, it was Mike whom he called and who got him back to Wellington, “to get my head together.”

During his most recent stay at the Wellington Night Shelter, he was escaping more ghosts. After a twelve-year period of relative stability he had separated from his partner and was struggling to retain a connection with her two sons, with whom he had formed a close bond.  Dave has been like a father to them since they were 2 and 3 years old respectively and is struggling to make sure they don’t have a repeat of his own life. “Her kids mean something to me, I didn’t want them to go where I had been.”

When he returned to the Night Shelter this time, he was hitting the booze hard and his behaviour incurred the wrath of manager Mike Leon who took the extreme step of banning him from the Night Shelter for a time. At that point, Dave admits there were times when, “going back to prison had some appeal.”

The tough talks with Mike and his staff around this time helped Dave realise that heading back to prison and his old life was not in the best interest of his children. “Mike gave me a ‘wake-up’ call which I needed. I’m trying to keep stable now for the kids, I’m not cutting them out of any relationship we have, I’m not going down again,” says Dave.

A trip to an internet café where Dave used to keep in contact with his sons also proved to be a catalyst to help him get back on his feet. “I was using their computer when it crashed, so I reset their whole system and got it up and running again….the staff were so impressed,  they offered me a job.” Dave now has regular employment at the internet café. “I don’t mix drink with work, and as my shift is at night, it also helps to stop me drinking.”

With the help of Mike Leon, Downtown Community Ministry and the Wellington City Council, Dave now has a small Council flat to call home and is living a relatively normal life as he comes to terms with a few more ghosts from his past and tries to get his life back on track. Says Dave: “It’s up to me now.”