Bridge dwellers: a homemade toilet and semi-pet rats

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jul 25, 2018 in Rat News | Subscribe

Bridge dwellers: a homemade toilet and semi-pet rats

A group of homeless men have made a haven for themselves inside a central Auckland bridge.

Auckland Council has announced it will count the city’s rough sleepers to fully grasp the scale of homelessness. We took to the streets to learn about those on society’s edge in the city’s centre, whose current way of life the council hopes to eliminate.

Sonny doesn’t just live under a bridge, he lives inside one.

Forty-year-old rough sleeper Sonny has lived inside an inner-Auckland bridge for four years.

Forty-year-old rough sleeper Sonny has lived inside an inner-Auckland bridge for four years.

It’s a luxury pad, as far as homeless haunts go, with blankets slung over pipes to give the impression of rooms. There’s a bathroom, living room and bedroom in there – plus a gaping tunnel, which is home to brazen fat rats.

“We feed them sometimes,” says Sonny. “They’re not tame, but they’re kind of friendly.”

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In the middle of the day the space stays pitch black. Beams of torchlight illuminate a sheepskin-draped deckchair and camp-stove kitchen. There’s a zebra bedspread strewn with pictures torn from a porn magazine. The floor is neatly swept and clothes hang from the steampunk-esque network of pipes across the ceiling. A knitted lion lies along one of them, overseeing both rats and humans perform their daily rituals. For the three humans living there, one of these is a dip in the drip-fed wheelie bin – their bath.

Homemade toilet inside the bridge.

Homemade toilet inside the bridge.

The pièce de résistance is the dunny. It’s homemade, with a real toilet seat and lid balanced over a vertical concrete pipe. Sonny says it’s served as a splendid longdrop throughout his four years “on and off” in the bridge.

The whole place smells strongly of urine.


Rats live alongside humans inside the bridge.

Rats live alongside humans inside the bridge.

Forty years old with ‘100 per cent Cook Island’ tattooed in on his neck and ‘Southside’ down his forearm, Sonny’s slept rough since his 2014 release from Auckland Prison at Paremoremo. He served five years and six months there for killing a police dog.

The bridge is a secret spot with relatively house-proud and clean-living occupants who don’t want just anyone dropping by to get wasted or make a mess. Sonny kipped in downtown Auckland’s Myers Park before getting invited to move in; the then-occupants spent time getting to know him first, to make sure he had the right values.

Sonny has – sort of – but hasn’t always. While he grew up in a loving home in the south Auckland suburb of Māngere, he messed with a wild crowd as a teen.

“There was drugs, alcohol, gangs and heaps of time in jail,” he says from his mustard-coloured armchair inside the bridge.

“It was like a second home for me; you’d get three meals a day, play ping pong, and exercise in there. You get to know the wardens, and some people even commit crimes just so they can get a roof for winter.”

When he left prison that last – he hopes final – time, he’d “had enough”.

Inside the Auckland bridge, where Sonny has lived for four years.

Inside the Auckland bridge, where Sonny has lived for four years.

“I decided to trust in God and to turn my life to good.”

Sonny says he avoids alcohol and the synthetic cannabis that’s taken the lives of his friends, reads his Bible, and memorises verses that resonate.

When asked about his face tattoo he recites Revelations 21:4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain for the former things are passed away.”

The tattoo’s a tiny tear drop beneath his right eye, a popular prison tatt with a myriad of meanings – some deeply sinister. Sonny says he got it after his dad died in 2009.

Furniture has been dragged inside the bridge over the years.

Furniture has been dragged inside the bridge over the years.

That teardrop’s connotations make getting jobs and housing more difficult than if his face was un-inked, he reckons. So does his gender. Sonny says he’s on Housing New Zealand’s register, but “appreciates homeless ladies and kids have to come first”.


Sonny's kitchen inside the bridge.

Sonny’s kitchen inside the bridge.

​Last Friday, vigilante social workers Owen Pomana and Moses Falau hopped a fence to pick their way down a muddy track to a metre-square grate in the side of the bridge. It’s Sonny’s front door.

“Anyone home?” hollered Pomana. A minute passes by, there’s a rattle. The grate opens and we three crawl into the dark interior.

Sonny’s inside and tells us to pull up a pew. When you’re inside the bridge this means selecting a low-slung pipe. Sonny first met Pomana, a Herculean hero of Auckland’s homeless, a week prior, and found in him a kindred spirit.

The men hang their clothes over pipes that criss-cross the ceiling.

The men hang their clothes over pipes that criss-cross the ceiling.

A former rough sleeper himself – as well as a former body builder, gangster, addict and deportee – Pomana found God, turned his life around, and has been on a mission to rescue rough sleepers ever since. He leads a community of like-minded troopers operating outside the established social welfare system, preferring a more hands-on and tailor-made approach.

Pomana knows as well as anyone how people can slip through the gaps. And he’s adamant it’s not acceptable to let them languish under bridges, no matter how pimped the abode.

“It’s not humane for people to be living under bridges like this,” he says of Sonny’s setup. “It’s not safe, it’s cold, it’s unhealthy – he is literally competing with rats for food.”

Getting into the bridge entails pulling open a metal grate and crawling through a hole.

Getting into the bridge entails pulling open a metal grate and crawling through a hole.

Pomana had befriended one of Sonny’s bridge-mates and found him a job in Taupo. Sonny is his next project.

The first time Pomana saw him, Sonny was trying to fashion frames for the only two photos he had of his family. Pomana asked if he could take the pictures to get copied – in case something ever happened to the originals. Sonny let him, and now Pomana’s back with the now-professionally framed photos.

That’s what he does. Identifies something that’s important to whomever it is he’s focused on rescuing, then either fixes it or makes it a reality. For Sonny it was family snaps, for a young woman Pomana helped off the streets recently it was her teeth. The woman was ashamed of her broken smile, so he crowdfunded to pay for the dental work.

Sonny with vigilante social workers Moses Folau and Owen Pomana.

Sonny with vigilante social workers Moses Folau and Owen Pomana.

“It shows we care about them as an individual, which means a lot to these people,” he explains.

“It’s all well and good to shake someone’s hand and give them a soup, but that empowers them to stay put. To inspire people to move, that takes trust.”

Inside the bridge, Pomana wants Sonny to discuss his ambitions – Sonny says he’d “like to work”.

Heading into the bridge.

Heading into the bridge.

“But what do you really want to be? You don’t just want any old job,” pushes Pomana. The pair eventually agree Sonny’s tumultuous life experience might make a good foundation for social work. Sonny says he’s keen to help young people steer clear of his own mistakes.

“I hope you join us because you’d be great,” says the ever-fortifying Pomana.

Not every homeless person Pomana meets is “ready to be motivated”, he says. “We leave those ones be and concentrate on people who want to move, who have any sort of dream.”


Bridge dwellers abound in Auckland city; Nick is one who says he prefers it to living in a house.

Beneath a different Auckland bridge reclines a homeless man named Nick who claims to already be living the dream. 

His is a more traditional set-up than Sonny’s, with more natural light and less protection from the elements or spying eyes. Nick gets plenty of visitors, some warmly welcomed, some not. He says there’s not much he can do about it.

Strategically placed bricks help guests over the fence and a path of soggy carpet tiles – not mud – leads them to a red tent. Beyond the tent is open space dotted with chairs, a barbecue, beer cans and the odd bra.

Former fisherman Nick has a mop of grey curls he says women tell him are “lovely”, and few teeth. The 58-year-old collects furniture abandoned on roadsides, and tells us he’s particularly chuffed with a swivel-base chair he found downtown.

“See that chair there? I came across it down Hobson St,” he says. “It had one of its feet broken, so they threw it away. But it’s a lovely chair. It’s been here awhile now, it’s been down the bank. Must have rolled over. I just put another base on it, you know, and it’s wonderful.”

Nick is lying on a red mattress, outside the tent. While surrounded by motorways, his view is of the top of a tree-clad slope. Someone’s hung a paper cup with parsley growing in it from one of the branches. A lump of raw and greying meat the size of a head sits on a stool.

The bridge has been Nick’s shelter for the past five years and even if the government offered him a house, Nick says he’d stay put.

Nick, 58, has been living under an Auckland bridge for the past five years.

Nick, 58, has been living under an Auckland bridge for the past five years.

“Why? Because then I’d have the stress of rent, power, landlords, neighbours … who needs it? If I did take [a house] it’d have to be a sole house, not a block of flats or anything. And it’d have to be as cheap as buggery.”

When asked if there’s anything he misses about house-life, he takes a moment to consider. Electricity can be nice, he says, but quickly adds he doesn’t really need it – then he points out his “plumbing”.

It’s a perennial drip from the ceiling that plops into a big plastic bucket near his bed: “That’s me sponge bath, see?”

Nick reckons he's got everything he needs under the bridge.

Nick reckons he’s got everything he needs under the bridge.

Winters don’t bother him because he can always chuck on more layers. He doesn’t do phones, he doesn’t do computers, he doesn’t do watches, he doesn’t do sunglasses.

Nick shuns anything he might miss, for objects under a bridge “do the rounds,” he says.


Decades back, after a night so boozy he couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to get home, Nick slept rough for the first time. He can’t remember when that was exactly, but says such nights just became more and more regular over a period of time.

Trees on one side, concrete on the other.

Trees on one side, concrete on the other.

“I’d think, ‘f… it, I’ll just sleep in the doorway’,” he says.

His daily routine goes like this: wake up at 7am and head to Merge Cafe – an initiative set up by Lifewise to feed the homeless – for free tea and toast and a catch-up with his fellow streeties. Then go back to the bridge for a morning nap. Return to the cafe at lunch time for another feed, then to the bridge again for an afternoon siesta. Dinner’s eaten at the City Mission.

Sometimes he fits in a bit of hustling, seated on the footpath with a cardboard sign reading ‘homeless, jobless, penniless, any donations greatly appreciated’. People can be very generous, but in a life without expenses the $230 he gets from WINZ each week tends to do the trick, he says.

Asked what he splurges on, Nick quips “sex and drugs and rock and roll” and wiggles his shoulders to the tune of the Ian Dury song. He says he’s most into the first two, as “who needs music blaring off in their bloody ears”. Books are strewn around his bed, but he reckons reading is “all palaver”.

'DENTIST 4PM SAT': Nick write reminders for himself on the walls of the bridge.

‘DENTIST 4PM SAT’: Nick write reminders for himself on the walls of the bridge.

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays are party nights – when Nick makes up for all the sleeping he does the rest of the week. Partying kicks off on Karangahape Rd, where he likes to “lurk with intent”.

But intent to do what? “Have a good time,” he says, with a sly wink.

What’s a good time for you? “I think you can answer that one, can’t ya?” Another sly wink.

Women, do you mean? “Not necessarily, but yes. And talking, drinking, drugging.”

Conquests get brought back to the tent. That’s where, he says, “the magic happens”. Nick found a bulk lot of lingerie in a skip while fishing at Wynyard Quarter once, which he likes to gift the women in his life.

“I chucked my nose over the edge and ‘hello’, there were 15 sets of brand new Bendon knickers and bras,” he says. “Just thrown away!”

As for drugs, he goes for “the happy side”. Crack, P, and synthetic cannabis. Of the latter, Nick says he “can have a puff and be fine”.

“But if I have three or four or five puffs, I’m over. Next minute you’re doing something crazy – running up and down the bank here, or hanging out of a tree. You’re coming to and you think, ‘s…! How’d I get here?'”


When asked about family, Nick says he hasn’t spoken to his wife or children in three years.

“Not sure whether they know about my lifestyle,” he says. “I don’t particularly care what they think. You’re only responsible for yourself and happiness comes from within.”

It's a lovely chair.

“It’s a lovely chair.”

As a kid, Nick says his home-life was abusive. He says he escaped his parents at 15, drifted through odd jobs, marriage, the births of a son and a daughter, violent alcoholism, and now homelessness.

What has he learned? “That the only person you can trust is yourself,” he says.

With his hand-drawn naked women on the concrete above him, behind a fence-cum-handrail he’s built from sticks and ribbon, Nick says he’s “probably the happiest I’ve ever been”.

“I don’t mind doing nothing.”


Owen Pomana says motivating “broken men” like Nick is a challenge. It’s also a challenge to keep the motivated ones like Sonny on track because glimmers of hope are easily shattered; hitches abound when you’re homeless.

Pomana says the fight against decades of bad decisions, addiction, abuse, illiteracy, poor health, and plain bad luck will never be an easy win. 

Most of Nick's day is spent reclined on his mattress.

Most of Nick’s day is spent reclined on his mattress.

 – Stuff

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