The end of Auckland’s notorious Hotel California

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jul 29, 2018 in Rat News | Subscribe

The end of Auckland’s notorious Hotel California

St Joseph’s Lodge, also known as Hotel California, is set to shut its doors.

There’s fear in the old nunnery in Grey Lynn’s Great North Rd.

There have been stabbings and fatal drug overdoses at the 96-year-old building, dubbed central Auckland’s Hotel California, in recent years. Since the holy ladies departed in the late 1980s, it’s been housing murderers, addicts, prostitutes, rapists, thieves, and the mentally unwell.

None of that worries its current two dozen or so tenants, including a 15-year-old boy – they’re scared because St Joseph’s Lodge, their home of last resort, has finally sold.

Lodge tenant Scotty reckons he'll be homeless after its closure.

Lodge tenant Scotty reckons he’ll be homeless after its closure.

A few hundred metres down the road, Grey Lynn Village is torn. While the hustling, drugs, and aggression of some St Josephites has been bad for business, no one wants them to end up homeless. They’re aware the option is not unlikely.

* From the Hilton to homeless: an alcoholic’s tale
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* Auckland’s phoney homeless make $100 a day on the streets
* The greed, desperation and squalor of life in illegal boarding houses

One lodger tells us his plan is to get hold of a tent and live in a park. He’s done it before, he says.

Another, named Ben, has added a plea to the cardboard sign he uses when begging in the village: “I’m desperate 4 a warm safe home,” it reads.

St Joseph's Lodge tenants need to find new places to live as the notorious old halfway house has been sold.

St Joseph’s Lodge tenants need to find new places to live as the notorious old halfway house has been sold.

 “Who’s going to take a bum like me in,” the 47-year-old gangster turned sickness beneficiary asks. It wouldn’t be his first time sleeping rough, either.


St Joseph’s owner and manager is in his 70s and has been trying to offload the place for years. Rentyn Turner battled the council to have the 1922 convent’s historic status lifted so its site could be developed, and won, but sales still fell through.

In the end he let the lodge go for $4.1 million and says the new owner isn’t going to tear the place down after all – it’ll be renovated for tourist accommodation.

Everyone must be out by October 1, exactly two weeks after Auckland Council is set to count the city’s rough sleepers – whose ballooning numbers Mayor Phil Goff says have gotten out of hand.

Graffiti is scrawled over the lodge's walls.

Graffiti is scrawled over the lodge’s walls.

The council’s general manager for community and events, Graham Bodman, who leads Auckland’s Housing First pilot scheme, says while any reduction in affordable accommodation was “a concern” it was up to property owners to decide when to call it quits on boarding houses like St Joseph’s.

Such places do create “a challenging dynamic” for their local areas, he says.


Grey Lynn village is a vibrant mash-up of traditional fish ‘n’ chip shops, a neo-Georgian library, ethical eateries, and one of New Zealand’s last Video Ezys.

It’s at the opposite end of Williamson Ave to hipster-centric Ponsonby, where Aucklanders wear cutting-edge Kiwi threads and eat $15 peanut buttered toast, and the gentrification is spreading.

The suburb was once populated by Polynesian families and considered rough, but they’ve been displaced by affluent and artsy types who paid $1.5 million on average for a three bedroom house there in June.

Beggars, drug addicts, and the generally downtrodden populate the village too. Some come from St Joseph’s Lodge, but not all.

There are other boarding houses nearby, including Dryden Lodge – the scene of a mysterious double death in March. There are genuinely homeless people too, like Royal of the Williamson Ave alcove, who locals are fond of and say cause no harm.

But St Joseph’s does undeniably attract vagrants to the area. Tenants admit their home’s a hub of the synthetic cannabis trade and that its seldom-locked doors let anyone desperate enough sneak in for a few weeks’ free kip.


When entering St Joseph’s, you might have to tiptoe past a snoring woman sprawled down the stairs, and over a puddle of vomit. Clusters of weathered men will greet you, beers in hand, and offer ribald banter. It’s a friendly place, though arguments break out often.

Down the high-ceilinged hallway, Ben shares a room with a diabetic woman. Their bed has a pink fleece and sagging mattress. Tiers of dusty spider webs climb walls penetrated by the hum of children playing at the primary school next door. The school’s principal is not a fan of the lodge.

Homeless people and beggars are not uncommon at the Grey Lynn shops.

Homeless people and beggars are not uncommon at the Grey Lynn shops.

It’s not actually Ben’s room – his is upstairs, guarded by a niece and her pet staffordshire bull terrier, he says. He says he’s got to look after his sick friend, but can’t leave his own $250-per-week room unattended as fellow tenants or the marauding homeless might boot in the door to nick his gear “again”.

He’s been hopping from boarding house to boarding house around Auckland for most of his life and deems St Joseph’s the “lowest of the low.

“There’s a lot of shit going on here. Fighting, drug intake, strangers coming in off the streets … the thieving that goes on here! This place is so unsafe, man,” he says.

“We’ve got the cockroaches and fleas to go with it. This house is rat-infested. Mouse-infested. I don’t want to live amongst all these dirty little critters.

“It’s warmer than on the street. But the street’s more cleaner.”

Ben holds the sign he carries down to Grey Lynn village each day to beg with.

Ben holds the sign he carries down to Grey Lynn village each day to beg with.

Despite his derision for the lodge, Ben is terrified of homelessness. He knew the building was for sale, but as it had been on the market for most of his five-year tenancy, he’d grown complacent. Ben figured he’d have at least another trip around the sun here, which seemed a long time.

Last month he found out via the newspaper the building had sold. He’s been panicking ever since and say his depression, the reason he’s on the sickness benefit, has worsened due to stress.

At that point in our conversation the school kids’ voices get drowned out by an uncanny song choice from a neighbouring room: David Bowie and Freddie Mercury belting out ‘Under Pressure’. Their lyrics, ‘people on the the streets, ee da de da de’, mingle with Ben’s fears of becoming homeless.

“I don’t want to go out on the streets because I’ll end up dying on the streets,” he says.


All Grey Lynn residents spoken to on Thursday were quick with an anecdote. Within the past two months there’s been the double stabbing at a dairy, a “strangled transvestite”, recurrent thieving, and the man in an AC/DC beanie who smashed the pharmacy’s shelves.

Kokako Cafe – an outpost of the Ponsonby scene serving kombucha and Fairtrade coffee with soy – gets addled St Joseph’s residents collapsing across its outside tables regularly.

People often sprawl across the tables outside Kokako Cafe in Grey Lynn's village hub.

People often sprawl across the tables outside Kokako Cafe in Grey Lynn’s village hub.

“We just have to call the ambulance,” says manager Troy Mentor, matter-of-factly.

Mentor says people associated with the lodge create “quite a violent atmosphere that’s intimidating to people walking past” – and they’re “probably” bad for business. But he does worry its current residents will end up sleeping rough.

“It would help clean the area up if they left,” he says. “Yet on the flipside, it’s gentrification.

“They are as entitled as anyone to be in Grey Lynn; living in a boarding house doesn’t exclude them and we don’t want only rich white people here.”

Hylite Dairy’s owner is quick to point out that it’s not only St Joseph’s tenants causing trouble in Grey Lynn. His wife and son were stabbed multiple times during an attempted robbery at the store in June, and the men charged over the assault were not from from the lodge.

Nevertheless, news of its nearing end was “a relief”, he says.

Lance, a tenant of St Joseph's Lodge.

Lance, a tenant of St Joseph’s Lodge.

“If the beggars go away, Grey Lynn will improve,” he says. “One or two is ok, but not eight or ten – they give the area a bad reputation.”

​Last Wednesday, at 1pm, a dishevelled man with an orange moustache and beanie embroidered with AC/DC walked into the pharmacy on Great North Rd.

He went up to Sunil Kumar at the counter and asked the pharmacist to fill a prescription for drugs that required special permission. Kumar made some phone calls – “I try my best to help this homeless-looking guy,” he says –  to no avail.

St Joseph's Lodge in Auckland's Grey Lynn sold for $4.1million.

St Joseph’s Lodge in Auckland’s Grey Lynn sold for $4.1million.

The man’s agitation is clear on the security video footage Kumar shows us. He bunches his fists, paces, and finally spins on his heel to stride out. Along the way he smashes boxes and bottles off the pharmacy’s shelves, destroying about $100 worth of products, many of which spill their contents into the carpet.

Kumar has reported the incident to police. He’s not sure where the man came from, but says he is the sort of person St Joseph’s attracts.

“They have mental health issues and problems with drugs – this makes them so erratic, you don’t know what they will do,” he says.

“It feels dangerous here. Sometimes we shut the shop early because we don’t want to be leaving while they are outside.”

There is a wall of post-boxes in front of the pharmacy; Kumar says “riff raff” often stand in front of it, asking for money and barring Grey Lynn residents from collecting their mail. He says they sometimes stuff greasy fish ‘n’ chips wrappers into the boxes.

In the pharmacy, local mum Rosie Meikle overhears us talking about St Joseph’s Lodge.

“Is it closing?” she asks. “I don’t think that would be a bad thing, but it concerns me where they will go. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them.”

Former lodge resident Michael, who was kicked out for being a hoards, lights up.

Former lodge resident Michael, who was kicked out for being a hoards, lights up.

Meikle, 30, invites us up to the art-clad apartment she shares with her partner and toddler. She tells us about an incident she witnessed involving a “strangled transvestite” in a nearby car park recently – there was domestic abuse, drugs, and vomiting, and she had to call both the ambulance and police.

“We don’t want to lose the character of Grey Lynn,” says Meikle. “But the violence, the drugs and the crime, that nasty side . . . now I’m a mum I’m probably much less blasé about it all.”


New Zealand’s welfare system will try its best to stop St Josephites slipping through the cracks when the lodge closes. The Ministry of Social Development says it’s been in touch with some tenants already, to make sure those on the public housing register have updated applications reflecting their changes in circumstances.

While tenants are in charge of keeping their own rooms tidy, Michael was evicted when his became a safety hazard.

While tenants are in charge of keeping their own rooms tidy, Michael was evicted when his became a safety hazard.

The ministry’s Auckland regional commissioner Mark Goldsmith says he is “committed” to ensuring tenants know their options ahead of the boarding house shutting its doors.

“We continue to be available in the lead up to the closure for any tenants that want our help,” he says.

The City Mission is also likely to step in closer to October, says a spokeswoman for the homelessness charity.


These pledges of support weren’t enough to reassure the likes of Ben, who says he’s lost faith in the system. Or long-time tenant Scotty, who reckoned he’d be living in a tent come October.

Scotty has been sitting amongst the pigeons of St Joseph’s garden with a saucepan of hot water and small bag of ground coffee for 10 years. He’s a 58-year-old alcoholic who looks like a rockstar gone to seed. He’s philosophical about moving on from the lodge.

Chrissy, a prostitute, in her room at St Joseph's Lodge.

Chrissy, a prostitute, in her room at St Joseph’s Lodge.

“It’s a troubled household, naturally; it’s probably time it closed down as it’s beginning to fall down,” he says. “That’s just the way it is, though it’s certainly the end of an era.”

He’s seen a handful of people kick the bucket while in residence – “deaths associated with the lifestyle” – and once walked into the room of a man whose dead body had been lying on the bed for weeks.

He’s also watched a large rat take days to die in the lodge’s kitchen, hemorrhaging slowly after being poisoned.

Scotty would rather discuss history – Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein’s 1987 rebuild of Babylon, for instance – than his own plight. He thinks it’s more interesting that after learning Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II had his name stamped on the 2,500 year old palaces’ original bricks, Hussein demanded the same legend for himself in his folly imitation of the ancient kingdom.

“Did you know that?” he asks, before being steered back onto what lay ahead for him.

At the moment, Scotty says, he favours a spell in a park “amongst the ducks and the swans” over navigating the bureaucracy of agency-offered housing. It’ll be warmer by November, he points out, and he’s used to being on society’s outskirts.

“We closed the asylums down years ago, and [St Joseph’s Lodge] is the best thing we’ve got at the moment,” he says. “We are people on the fringe. We are the fringe-dwellers.”


While Ben claims life at St Joseph’s is on par with bridge dwelling – that he’s desperate for a third option – and Scotty seems undaunted by a spell of homelessness, there are tenants sad to see the place shut down.

Room one occupant Tertia has lived in the boarding house for six months with her partner and 15-year-old son. She says she’ll miss the lodge.

“For me, home is where you make it. You can be living in a mansion or on the street, it just depends on your mindset,” she says.

Relatively new tenants Tertia and her 15-year-old son Wesley are sorry to see St Joseph's Lodge shut down.

Relatively new tenants Tertia and her 15-year-old son Wesley are sorry to see St Joseph’s Lodge shut down.

​Tertia has the best room in the house. It’s at the front, big, and afternoon sun pours in. She’s prettied it up with a floral pink scarf over the folding table and a bright posy on the windowsill. The flowers were picked from St Joseph’s garden, where blooms can be found all year round.

There are rats and cockroaches, she admits, but she reckons she’d find them anywhere.

On a Tuesday morning, sitting on a blue sofa beside a Bugs Bunny mug full of kitchen utensils, Tertia’s son Wesley speaks up for his fellow St Josephites. He says it’s the first place he’s felt stable and that he knows tenants have his back.

“They are good people here,” he says. “They support me, everyone here makes me happy.”

Tertia nods and says she’ll miss “the hearts” of St Joseph’s most of all.

Mother and son agree most residents, especially those with mental health issues, were struggling to come to terms with the fact their chapters at St Joseph’s were ending. They worry about finding landlords who’d take them on, interacting with new people, and leaving familiar Grey Lynn. Wesley says “a lot of pressure” has bedevilled the lodge since its sale was announced.

“There is a lot of fear and anxiety; you can see people’s sadness,” Tertia adds. 

“These people have been here long enough that the place has become a part of them.”

 – Stuff

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