In 2020 Murray Edridge started work on the Whakamaru social services centre. He spoke to Harriet Palmer in the early days of the project.
All going to plan, the head of the Wellington City Mission will see construction start this year on a new $20-million headquarters and social services centre, to be named Whakamaru. The development will transform an existing building in Mt Cook, which backs onto the gardens of Government House.
The move from the City Mission’s current headquarters in central Newtown will bring it closer to the CBD – and to more of Wellington’s homeless community, which is growing after years of skyrocketing housing costs.
The list of services Whakamaru will provide is long: 35 supported-living apartments for people who have endured chronic homelessness, a 120-seat café offering cheap and healthy meals for anyone who needs them, a social supermarket to replace the current foodbank, an alternative education school, a commercial laundry with free services for people on the street, and office space for staff and volunteers.
Funding for the development has come from Wellington City Council, philanthropists, and business owners, including property developer Ian Cassels who recently pledged $10,000 from every home he sells for more than $800,000.
If everything goes as planned, consents will be obtained and construction will begin in the second half of this year. Edridge wants to be walking through the door at the end of 2021.
He says Whakamaru, meaning ‘to protect’, and ‘to provide shelter’, represents a new era for the City Mission, which has been helping the city’s most vulnerable people for more than a century. It will focus on three areas.
The first is housing – ‘such a significant issue in Wellington.’ The City Mission opened transitional housing for homeless people in Petone last year. It is looking at ways to work with commercial building developers to create more public housing.
Next is food – the mission has always been a provider of food, Edridge says, but the way it’s done now is ‘not mana-enhancing’ and people get food they don’t like or don’t know how to use. The social supermarket will mean people can choose their own food and have some help while they do it.
His third goal is to harness the energy and support of the Wellington community – through volunteering. ‘I have a view that there are significant volunteering opportunities that we haven’t capitalized on yet.
‘We bring in people now who are really skilled and capable and experienced and we get them chopping food and moving tin cans. Which of course needs to be done, but we are not taking advantage of all the skills people have and the experience they bring.’
Beyond these immediate ways of making a difference, Edridge has a bigger and longer-term vision. He wants to see a transformation in the way Wellington perceives people in need.
‘Lives matter just as much no matter what you have, who you are, or what you are going through,’ he says.
Utopian? Edridge thinks not. If any city can do it, he says, it’s Wellington. This isn’t the optimism of a recent arrival – Edridge was born in Wainuiomata and spent 35 years there before moving to Whitby. He loves the city.
Before taking up the lead at the City Mission in 2018, Edridge had a long career. He started as an accountant in the power and gas industry, a far cry from social advocacy. He moved to the NGO sector after he became deeply concerned about ‘families and the lack of dads in our community’ and spent eight years as the CEO of children’s charity Barnado’s.
He also served as a Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Social Development, but left after taking the blame for a data bungle. He says he was never really a good fit in Government. The move to the Mission feels good. Edridge is the first Missioner not to be an ordained Anglican priest, but he is a committed Christian.
‘I have inherited this thing – this organisation that is 116 years old – which means some of it is just awesome, but some of it feels like it has been here too long. For me, it’s about what do you do with something this iconic, with this much brand recognition? We have huge opportunities.’
‘I’m pushing quite hard. Nobody sleeps around here,’ he half-jokes.
He says Whakamaru will be a massive improvement for the Mission, and a manifestation of the way the City Mission needs to be. It’s his vision in bricks and mortar. ‘Whakamaru gives us the ability to create a community where there is no “us” and “them”’, he says, ‘where all people can come to connect in a whole variety of ways and there is no judgment, no distinction.’
Ultimately, he says, the City Mission can do a lot more than serve people, as important as this work is.
‘The best thing we can do is help the community understand that for us to be successful as a society, we all need to share in that success. So, how do we support and facilitate the community to care for itself?’