Sleeping Rough

For most of Norm’s 79 years, the freedom of sleeping ‘rough’ has been his preferred way of life. Norm values his freedom. He’s never owned a home, nor wanted one.

Norm has also chosen to shun his family for his lifestyle. The last time he visited his sister, she was 92 years old. Recalls Norm, “I visited  her, and I must admit, I also wanted to borrow $30, so I spent a night in her home, but all she did was to tell me off the whole night. She went on and on. She didn’t like my lifestyle.” Norm left without his $30 and never returned. Today he is not even sure if his sister is still alive.

Always single, Norm says, “marriage is against my religion.” Sure, there have been girlfriends, but he prefers his freedom. Over the years he has lost a lot of his friends, “when they get hold of a girl and settle down.”

In his time he has ranged far and wide from his origins on a family farm near Methven in Canterbury. His first work was as an apprentice carpenter in Christchurch. However, it was not long before the road called, and he recalls walking most of the way to Nelson where he secured a job as a storeman for a fishing company. Stints back in Christchurch, then Dunedin and Queenstown, followed.

Home for Norm has always been a succession of boarding houses or ‘sleeping rough’, which is not without its perils. Norm recalls once late at night, he climbed a fence in the dark and was feeling around for a nice place to sleep. In the morning he woke refreshed but rather smelly to find he had chosen a dead sheep as his pillow. On another occasion he climbed a fence and nearly became ‘tucker’ for a horde of hungry pigs.

Money is of no object to Norm. He smiles at the thought and says, “Money is no importance –  I simply haven’t got any.” What money that has come his way during occasional forays into the workforce has been invested elsewhere. He is a keen follower of the racetrack, and partial to a beer or two.

Norm recalls that at one stage he was involved with the training of an as yet un-named horse. At that time another horse called ‘Even Stevens’ was winning a lot of races and, not to be out-done, Norm and his mates named their horse, ‘Even Better.’ Unfortunately for Norm, ‘Even Better’ didn’t live up to his name.

Whenever the road called, Norm would be off. Perhaps it was a call to visit a distant race meeting, or perhaps the need to accompany a drinking buddy on an adventure. Along the way Norm has met his share of rogues. He recalls one named Charlie whose favourite scam was a series of collection boxes for the ‘Church of Light,’ which he scattered on selected bar counters and happily harvested the returns. Another scam saw Charlie kindly offering to ‘place bets’ for his mates at the TAB. Unfortunately the ‘evidence’ of Charlie’s friendly placements were usually discarded losing ticket butts collected from the floor, which left Charlie free to invest his mates’ money on horses of his own choice. Charlie and Norm eventually parted company after Charlie learned new skills and emptied Norm’s EFTPOS account.

Since the 1980’s Norm has been a frequent visitor to the Wellington Men’s Night Shelter as he travelled throughout New Zealand following either occasional work or horse race meetings. Whenever he passed through, the Wellington Men’s Night Shelter was his preferred home, says Norm, “it is the best in NZ. There’s a good team there.”

The years have been kind to Norm, but at 79 it is now time to settle down. An old back injury and a hip problem have limited his ability to walk and roam. Friends of the Wellington Men’s Night Shelter have been generous, and with the help of St Vincent De Paul, Downtown Community Mission, Wellington City Council, Wesley Community Action and Mike Leon, Manager of the Wellington Night Shelter, Norm has his first permanent home in a newly redecorated WCC flat.

However, living on his own is not without challenges. By his own admission, Norm’s cooking skills are pretty bad, after a lifetime of scrounging meals wherever he could. “I have been known to even burn water,” smiles Norm.

After a lifetime of living with no possessions Norm is now looking for a few necessities to set-up his home. “A mop, a vacuum cleaner, I don’t need much,” he says.

“The WCC Council flat is brand new and is very comfortable,” says Norm, “I won’t be back at the Night Shelter.” And Norm’s next travel plan is characteristically modest: “They’ll just have to carry me out in a pine box.”