A 14th century English proverb says, “From a tiny acorn, a mighty oak doth grow.” And that is what happened, metaphorically, in the region of Northland, New Zealand, when its newspaper, The Northern Advocate, heard about Whakamanamai Whānau Trust. The trust is a small band of people whose mission is to bring housing to the area’s most vulnerable homeless individuals and families.
Northland, where the New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people comprise about 36% of the population, is the country’s least urbanised region. It has one of the highest rates of homelessness in New Zealand, a number that has been made worse by COVID-19.
A campaign for the homeless
The media campaign “Our Hidden Homeless” came to life after The Advocate and radio station The Hits Northland teamed up with a Māori private training establishment to help the trust with its project, Whare to the Whenua.
Its mission is to provide portable cabins — and hopefully home ownership — for people who had no place to call home. Couch-surfing grandmothers, dads who have lost jobs due to COVID-19, former prisoners, and Northlanders living in cars have all benefitted from the project.
The cabins, or portacoms, are now located in several Northland communities. They are made with a galvanised steel chassis, plywood flooring, and aluminum windows. Each has a panel door with a lock and key, is certified electrical, and is fitted with vinyl or carpet.
But one thing was missing: The cabins were unfurnished. So the two media outlets asked their audiences to donate good-quality furniture — beds, drawers, a chair or a couch — so the bare cabins could become homes. To keep it as simple as possible for readers and listeners to get involved, the newspapers arranged to remove the obvious barrier of getting the items picked up and delivered. The goal was to “kit out” 10 cabins with quality furniture.
The Hits and The Advocate, with its 32,000 daily readership, put the full power of the press to work on behalf of the project, with all platforms — print, online, social, and radio — put into play. Together, they received numerous responses before the first 24 hours had passed and reached more than a half-million people on Facebook and through their Web site.
The campaign ran over six days, beginning with a full-page special design and front-page editorial on the best-selling day of the week. After that, all the stories online and in print carried a graphic to show how people could contribute.
Staff helped promote the campaign and sustain its momentum. A reporter and photographer spent weeks coordinating and interviewing people for the series. The newspaper’s editor and the radio station’s host both did regular update interviews to let people know about the campaign and how to get involved. The Hits promo team contacted donors and organised time slots to pick up their contributions.
Turning containers into homes
Several truckloads of household items arrived from across the Northland region as well as adjoining Auckland, including:
- 32 beds.
- 13 couches.
- 16 sets of drawers.
- 10 armchairs.
- 10 dining chairs.
- Numerous refrigerators, TVs, lamps, toasters, heaters, shelving units, and coffee and bedside tables.
Contributions came from afar as well; someone in Australia bought a bedding set and had it delivered, and several monetary donations, including one from Seattle, were collected. A local cabin company hopes to donate a cabin and possibly assist in the long term. One of the project leaders said, “We’ve been overwhelmed with responses and are so grateful. It’s really making a difference to the people that really need it.”
The project grew from an idea brought to reality by a small group to a regions-wide project connecting thousands when two local media outlets shed light on it and reached an audience that seemed just ready for an opportunity to help.