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The team at DCM begin the day with a waiata. From left: Joanne Moses, Robert Sarich, Natalia Cleland, Janet Dunn, Tania Moloney and Alex Wong. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw.

How Wellington's Downtown Community Ministry has been changing lives for 50 years

In a brightly coloured building, down a little-known lane in the heart of Wellington, is an organisation that’s been working to end homelessness for five decades.

At DCM, every day begins with waiata and karakia. Outside the red double doors, a couple of dozen people stand in a circle as a guitar-playing social worker leads the singing. Alongside DCM staff are a dentist and dental assistant, an ophthalmologist, and a Wellington City Council Local Host (or “street ambassador”) who’s checking in about a rough sleeper newly arrived to the city.

Completing the circle are what DCM calls “taumai” (meaning “to settle”): the people usually more clinically described as “service users”. But there’s nothing clinical about DCM. When the organisation opened its doors back in 1969 (then known as the Inner City Ministry, later becoming the Downtown Community Ministry), its mission was to “focus on the needs of, and help to empower, those marginalised in the city”. An ever-increasing squeeze on housing means that’s more acute than ever, as DCM marks its 50th year.

The singing over and the karakia delivered, the taumai climb the stairs to Te Hāpai (meaning “to lift up”), a warm room where they can have a hot drink, some donated food, and kōrero with other taumai and DCM’s social workers. They’re genuinely welcome. “This is where people come seeking support, connection and community,” says Stephanie McIntyre, DCM’s director of 15 years.

While the instinctive response to homelessness is often handing out food, blankets and clothes – all temporary comforts – DCM is focused on dealing with the underlying causes. “More than 1200 taumai come through our doors each year. Of those, some 275 are without shelter, sleeping rough,” says McIntyre. “We focus on getting them into housing as a first step. That done, we support them to sustain their tenancies, travelling with them to greater wellbeing.”

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About half of DCM’s services are backed by government or Wellington City Council funding, including an outreach programme, where social workers visit those rough sleeping or begging. The other half comes from donations and fundraising.

Around the city, volunteer photographers are capturing images for an exhibition this September to mark DCM’s official birthday, while in Shelly Bay a legion of volunteers is counting and sorting books for the DCM Bookfair on 17 August.

Back at HQ, a retired ophthalmologist is doing eyesight checks in one of the organisation’s two treatment rooms. A physiotherapist donates his time to ease the aches of sleeping rough, an audiologist tests hearing, cleans ears and fits donated hearing aids, and a dental service is backed by the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Dental Association. 

“It’s so humbling and rewarding to volunteer here,” says dental assistant Emily Kremmer, who gives five hours of her time once a week, despite working, and studying fulltime. “You take away their pain and get so much gratitude in return. One man we worked on recently said, ‘I’m a new man. You’ve given me my life back.’”

For DCM’s 50th anniversary, the organisation is emphasising the “together” part of its tagline: “Together, we can end homelessness in Wellington.”

“Donating time or money is an effective way to help end homelessness,” says McIntyre. “It’s certainly more effective than handing over a sandwich.”

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South.

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