Rough sleeper in tune with homelessness

Mark Jennings reports on a Big Sleepout veteran who decided on a more upbeat approach to the complex problem of homelessness

Sarah Trotman's Big Sleepout fundraising page is here

Tonight, about a hundred comfortably-off Aucklanders will have an uncomfortable night sleeping in the open to raise money for Lifewise, a charity that supports homeless people. A recent newspaper column described them as self-congratulatory do-gooders and awareness-raisers who hug themselves, rather than hugging trees.

Sarah Trotman ONZM will crawl into her sleeping bag and join the hundred or so people sleeping out in the AUT quadrangle, just as she has done for the past seven years. But frankly, she is a bit over it.

“Last time round I thought I’m not doing this again because it is so unpleasant, and I can’t ask my friends for another $100.”

Most of her friends and colleagues smiled and stumped up the money anyway.

This year though, they found themselves invited to a flash evening function hosted by AUT, where Trotman is a Director at the University’s Business School.

They were there to see the debut performance of a song that Trotman has commissioned from young Niuean pop artist Tommy Nee.
(Watch the video at the top of this page.)

Called Walk With You, the song is based on Trotman’s interactions with homeless people over recent years.

“I once owned a boarding house in Herne Bay and one day I got a call from the hospital saying you are the next-of-kin of one of our patients, notifying me that he was in a bad way and was unlikely to return home.”

“I was shocked by the call, I hardly knew Brendon but I went to the hospital and realised he had not a single person in his life."

“The first verse of the song is about Brendon and some of the men from the boarding house who struggled with alcoholism and other things “

Trotman decided to commission Nee after hearing him perform at a TEDx talk in Manukau, and spent about a month sharing her experiences with him.

These included her efforts to help a young mother sleeping in a garage with two children, and her trips to Northland to speak with school kids from struggling communities.

“I started off wanting to share Brendon’s story but I also realised that I also needed to release myself from it, but when Tommy sent the words he had written back to me I thought they were too personal. I sat on them and did nothing for a few months.”

Eventually, Trotman had the song recorded, and paid for a video clip to be shot.

“The video is for Lifewise supporters to put on their Facebook pages but I also want it to be a best seller.”

Lifewise Chief Executive Moira Lawler says Walk With You gives voice to different perspectives on the issue of homelessness “which everybody knows is there, but is absolutely getting worse”.

“Somewhere between 300 and 500 people are now sleeping rough in Auckland every night now and we know another 40,000 people are severely housing-deprived.”

“It is shocking, and even more shocking when there is very little reason for it other than the way we prioritise our resources as a nation.”

Lawler says one of the main reasons for the Big Sleepout is to “engage the minds and hearts of business and community leaders. We need entrepreneurial people to apply their problem-solving skills to the homeless issue.”

People like Sarah Trotman.

Trotman used to run a debt collection company and says she saw firsthand how “bad luck” can impact people’s lives.

“I used to deal with a lot of people who had no money. It only takes three things to happen at around the same time and people can be in big trouble – you lose your job, your marriage breaks up and you have a sick child. Luck in life can play a big part in how things turn out.

“I get upset when I see people who have an opportunity to help others and don’t.

“I can be as hardnosed and ruthless as the next person but I try to live my life by four or five simple rules. Kindness is one of them. It is kindness in little ways, it might be an encouraging comment or saying hello to a homeless person.”

Three years ago, Trotman and a friend stood outside the Mayor’s office with a sign calling on him to do something for the homeless.

Trotman protesting homelessness outside the Mayor's office. Photo: Supplied

“I had just been to the funeral of a homeless man who was bashed to death and I thought I had to do something about this man’s terrible death, this simply can’t be allowed to happen again”

Trotman maintained her vigil outside the Town Hall until 2am, describing it as both a rewarding and unnerving experience.

“People came up to me and gave me money because they thought I was homeless. It was at night and I felt a little bit vulnerable but word soon spread around the streets that there was a woman outside the Mayor’s, protesting about homelessness and the homeless community turned up and were very protective of me.”

Trotman’s protest mainly went unnoticed but there are signs the Auckland Council is starting to take the homeless issue more seriously. $500,000 has been set aside for “homeless projects”.

But the serial entrepreneur in Trotman is unlikely to rest. She has an idea about bach owners who let out their properties donating one week's rent to charities providing shelter to the homeless.

“I think this could take off, it has a certain synergy about it – I’m going to give it a go.”

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