When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) in 2020, Māori social worker Richard Pehi was briefly excited to hear the news that the government was opening motels for rough sleepers (homeless). He spent three weeks telling everybody he found on the streets about the motels in the hopes to finally get housing for Māori largely ignored prior to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the motel model didn't work. Pehi said that they were run with Western thinking, meaning “follow their rules or obligations or you'll be evicted."
Pehi recalled an experience with a client who had just lost her brother to suicide and became homeless as a result. She was able to get into emergency accommodation at a motel but the rules forbade any visitors, including family members. She was forced to grieve her brother's death completely alone.
The rules also forbade leaving the motel for extended periods, even if the reasons were medical in nature. One man was evicted after spending three days in hospital for an illness. Another family reported to Pehi that their children were not allowed outside and were told not to speak to neighbours.
Pehi said that this model simply does not work with the Whanau Rua (family) dynamic of the Māori people. Instead, he set about creating the Indigenous model He Whakawhiti Hoe, a principle-based model of practice. Whakawhiti means to cross over, to go from one place to another, to journey.
As a paddling people, the Māori would often have stopovers—He Whare Okioki, meaning A Place to Rest and Reset—where they could rest on their long journeys. Pehi compared rough sleepers to those on their journeys simply needing a place to rest before continuing on.
A 10-time national champion and two-time world champion Waka Ama (canoes) paddler, Pehi compared his paddle to the tool helping people. The handle is the connection between the support worker (Pehi) and the whānau (people) who are sleeping rough. The body of the paddle is the relationship between the support worker and the person being supported, learning about the expectations of one another. Finally, the blade is about the sovereignty of the person in taking control of their future. The blade propels you forward and into permanent housing.
But Pehi cautioned that the last step is one that the whānau must make themselves.
“Nobody's going to do it for you. You've got to put your paddle in the water."
Pehi's model has been put into limited practice so far with moderate success. But without widespread adoption, many Māori will continue to suffer. He said the political measures designed to “help" whānau typically fail because they are not designed with the Māori worldview in mind. As well, after COVID-19, the people still in emergency accommodation have no legal standing because the program was left outside the residential tenancy act. Their housing is precarious.
Pehi is calling for a total system reset where the government adopts the Māori kaupapa (policy) approach of He Whare Okioki, where whānau wellbeing is the focus.
After all, E waka eke noa. We are all in this together.