9 Mar 2021

Haven for those in need, Merge Cafe may close without $60k help

From Checkpoint, 5:31 pm on 9 March 2021

A community cafe on Auckland's Karangahape Rd may be forced to close if it cannot raise $60,000 by the end of the month.  

For more than a decade, Merge Cafe has been a space where the city's homeless can grab a tea or coffee, a hot meal and have a chat with a peer support worker.

For months it has been running at a loss, due largely to the cancellation of key fundraising events on the back of Auckland's repeated Covid-19 lockdowns.

One regular at Merge, Richard Turipa, said the cafe saved his life after he was homeless.

"I started to not believe in myself. And when that happens it's crazy, but you slowly start to get that belief back inside of you, people start to bring you out of your shell again. For me… I could have died out there, like many of our whānau do."

He said he found it tough when he moved to Auckland more than 10 years ago.

He took every part-time job he could, but when some of that work dried up he had to make decisions many New Zealanders do not think twice about: food or rent.

Turipa believes living rough was killing him. This time last year, he said, it did take the life of one of his friends. 

"One of my good friends, someone I would talk to when I was hōhā, he'd come to see me when he was a bit hōhā, confused or off-track. We'd just have a cup of tea, have a feed, and we'd talk through what our things were."  

He said sitting at Merge Cafe changed his life. He now volunteers there as a peer support worker.

"Over the years I had become homeless. This was a place for me to come and have a cup of tea, keep out of the cold, keep warm.

"I've gotten into art and discovered that I can do carving. So we've had exhibitions in here."  

Over the years Merge has become a haven for street whānau, whether they are in need of a hot drink, a meal or just a chat.

They can look for a job, receive mental health support and get help finding a permanent home. Paying customers are welcome too and can buy a pay-it-forward meal.

Lifewise, the organisation which runs Merge, said the cafe was on life support.

"We're really struggling financially to make it work at the moment. So what we're hoping is that we're going to get loads of community support and people are going to give us money, I guess, so we can keep it open," Lifewise chief executive Jo Denvir said.  

The organisation said it needed to raise $60,000 to keep Merge Cafe open.  

It has released accounts showing the café is running at a $13,000 loss, month on month.

Four Covid-19 lockdowns in Auckland have made matters worse - a closed cafe means no pay-it-forward meals for those in need.

"Part of that's road works and part of it is Covid-19. Another big contributing factor for us is we usually have an event called the Big Sleepout which we haven't been able to do for the last two years. That usually gives us about $300,000 a year to put towards keeping Merge Cafe going."

It was a busy at lunch-time. In the kitchen, volunteer Rupert D'Ath said he was doing it just to give back.

"I was homeless before lockdown. Lifewise and Merge Café, the joint team, got me into the motels during the lockdown, got me into rehab in Whangārei, I just finished nine months two weeks ago. I've come back to Auckland, I'm happy, I'm sober, living well and this is just my opportunity to say thank you."  

Next to him another volunteer, Timothy Plummer, was clearing tables, doing dishes and chatting to diners.

"New Zealand has helped me become the person I am today. I fully appreciate what they've done. It's a gift back to pass on. There's a lot of people that do go without, and this is my way to give back to the community."  

Turipa said he was focused on giving to those in need at the cafe where he had been given so much.

"I'm just trying to get up and lead, or do. I don't always have the answers, but I just do."

He said Merge closing would be devastating for Karangahape Rd's street whānau and all those who sought refuge there.

"It'll all 'go back to the street'. The K Rd community, they really know that because this place is open, the [Auckland City] Mission's just down the road, our whānau can get a bit of help during the day.  

"Otherwise our whānau will be out there, they will be getting cold, they will be getting angry… all sorts of situations happen when these things happen." 

Lifewise has given itself until 31 March to raise the $60,000 needed to keep Merge running. 

With winter around the corner, closure would mean one less place to keep Auckland's homeless out of the cold.