11 Sep 2021

Bubbles within bubbles: How communal living facilities handle lockdown

5:13 pm on 11 September 2021

What happens if your bubble includes dozens of other people? RNZ checked in with a transitional housing facility and an intentional community to find out how they are managing lockdown.

An aerial photo of Kāwai Purapura shows the dozens of buildings built by the Centrepoint community, and North Harbour Stadium in the top left corner.

About 70 people are spending lockdown together at Kāwai Purapura, an intentional community on Auckland's North Shore. Photo: Supplied / Kāwai Purapura

Danielle Bergin knows to trust her head social worker's instinct. When the first case of the latest community outbreak was announced on the afternoon of 17 August, her social worker told her the country would be in level 4 by midnight.

A family was due to move into Island Child, the transitional housing facility Bergin runs in east Auckland, two days later. But instead, the team rushed to move them in before lockdown started at 11.59pm that night.

At Island Child, they receive wraparound support to help them transition into permanent housing. Little did they know they would end up in a bubble with roughly 40 others - all homeless families and individuals - effectively shut off from the outside world for weeks.

Bergin lives on site with her two daughters, which she says has been a blessing during lockdown as she's able to keep an eye on people's movements and call them in to check when some have broken the rules.

The Samoan families have taken this lockdown incredibly seriously, most in part due to many of the cases coming from the Assembly of God Church of Samoa cluster, she says.

It's the youth that she has to keep a close eye on, like one young man who wandered off for a few hours to meet up with friends from five different households on the maunga nearby.

"So what they think is a real reasonable activity, no one has talked through the steps…it's ended up on us as homeless workers to talk through the steps of how the transmission happens and how one person from one household can then infect 700."

Danielle Bergin outside some of the Island Child Charitable Trust's emergency housing.

Danielle Bergin says homeless workers have had to take on the role of lockdown educators. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

A large component of the staff's work since lockdown began has been around education, Bergin says.

She was shocked to discover just three of 18 families staying at the site had the Covid tracer app. They were all taught how to use it - and it's since been added to the facility's induction policy. They also made a new rule - anyone who breaks the bubble must get tested.

While the facility is being treated as one large bubble, there are also sub bubbles within it, Bergin says.

Families and individuals live in tiny homes or have their own bedroom at Island Child, but they share communal facilities such as kitchens, bathrooms and living areas.

Cleaning ramped up at the start of lockdown, and people were told to only use the facilities closest to their bedrooms. Social workers who live offsite in their own household bubbles still come to work wearing PPE, but no agency workers or visitors are allowed.

Clients wear masks when around others and practise social distancing, but still socialise somewhat. They even had a communal BBQ for a birthday party the other day, with families sitting on the decks of their tiny houses to eat.

"You can still call across the courtyard and have a laugh," Bergin says.

"It was really social and it really uplifted the mood of everyone here, and they talked about it for about five days."

'We all check in on one another'

About 30km away, in Albany on the North Shore, 70 people are hunkering down at Kāwai Purapura, an intentional community of like-minded people living at the former Centrepoint site.

There are usually more people who live there, but a large number left in the hours after lockdown was announced to go stay with family, friends and lovers.

General manager Paul Gregory says some decided to leave because they were "extremely concerned about the virus and very concerned about sharing facilities".

There is a variety of accommodation at the intentional community, ranging from rooms in the long rooms, cabins and houses. RNZ/ Michelle Cooke

Many Kāwai Purapura residents live in small cabins and share communal facilities Photo: RNZ / Michelle Cooke

At KP, as residents call it, many facilities are shared, so they've created about five small bubbles instead of one large bubble. When someone wants to cook they disinfect the area before using it, and then again at the end.

Bubbles stay 2 metres apart from each other, new cleaning teams have been formed, tables have been separated, and many communal areas are closed.

Kāwai Purapura general manager Paul Gregory first visited to attend a yoga class, soon became a volunteer and is now running the place.

Paul Gregory Photo: RNZ / Michelle Cooke

Visitors are not allowed, and even residents who left after lockdown was announced and want to return have been told they can't - the only people who left and came back were a couple who had their baby during lockdown and had to go to hospital.

No one has reported having been at a location of interest, but there are spare self-contained rooms should anyone need to isolate, Gregory says.

The community stays connected via a Facebook page, and there are daily updates from management. They still do yoga and sound bath classes (meditation where attendees are "bathed" in sound waves), but stay 2m apart, and a group has started soccer training together.

Just as they usually do, people are looking out for each other, he says.

Kāwai Purapura erected a sign warning the public to stay out after people started exploring the grounds for exercise at the start of lockdown

Kāwai Purapura erected a sign warning the public to stay out after people started exploring the grounds for exercise at the start of lockdown Photo: SUPPLIED

"We all check in on one another….we've got a good group of our older, wiser longer-term residents who take on the mantle of doing that, especially for some of the younger people here.

"They are struggling, there's no doubt about it, they're struggling, but they're also realistic that 20 acres of beautiful bush is not a bad place to do this."

The only issue has been outsiders wanting to use the grounds for their daily walk, but a large sign warning them to stay out has since kept them away.

Resident Debra Jamieson says for many, the lockdown has provided a slower pace, and people are enjoying doing things they don't usually have time for.

Many have taken up gardening, much to Gregory's delight.

"It's like a gardening Sunday every day," he says. "It's a shame I can't actually get any soil here."

Michelle Cooke is a digital journalist at RNZ

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