Gonzálo is a Chilean national who has been living in New Zealand for the past five months. He originally planned to simply visit friends and holiday, but COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown have meant that the past few months have been far less relaxing than he anticipated.

Gonzálo was supposed to return home in May. But that flight, and every other since, has been cancelled.

There is no way of knowing how soon he might be able to get home. There are some suggestions that it may be as late as December before he can return to Chile. And until then, because he has been on a visitor visa, his options are limited.

“I am trying to change my visa status,” he says. “I have to try to get a work visa or wait for my flight, then go home.”

It was a relief, then, when Gonzálo first heard that he might be eligible for help through Visitor Care Manaaki Manuhiri.

“I found out about this support through the Red Cross people that came through my hostel. They told me that I could apply to Red Cross,” Gonzálo says.

The Red Cross team explained that, as a temporary visa holder who was experiencing financial hardship because of COVID-19, he could apply to receive support for his food, accommodation and utility costs.

“I need the help, it’s true. I have a flight home, but the problem is that it keeps getting cancelled. For the moment, I am just waiting.”

Unable to work because of his visa status, Gonzálo had struggled to pay for his accommodation at Ecolodge. He was happy to learn that Visitor Care Manaaki Manuhiri assistance would allow him to repay his arrears to his accommodation provider, John Lowe, and have support to continue to pay rent for the next few weeks.

A safe place to stay during lockdown

John Lowe, co-owner of Ecolodge in Hastings.

John Lowe, the co-owner of Ecolodge in Hastings, has been supporting many of the young backpackers living in his hostel, including Gonzálo.

John says when he first contemplated the possible COVID-19 lockdown, the obvious choice was to close Ecolodge hostel to keep himself safe. But when he considered what that might mean for the people hosted by his long-running, family-owned business, John knew that was not an option.

“That would have resulted in a lot of 20-year-olds basically trying desperately to find somewhere else to live,” says John. “If they had to move out of the area that would mean giving up their job.”

So, John came up with a plan to keep all his residents sheltered and the whole group safe. He split the residents, of whom there were more than 130 at that time, into bubbles for working, eating, cleaning, and using facilities. He also made it clear to the worried group that no one would be homeless over lockdown.

“We announced at the start, “Look, no one is going to get thrown out because they can’t pay their rent.””

The decision meant that guests at Ecolodge had a safe place to stay during lockdown, particularly at a time when no one was sure how soon they might be able to find new work or get home. But it also left a significant dent in Ecolodge’s income.

That dent has been eased now, thanks to support through Visitor Care Manaaki Manuhiri. People staying with him who were facing financial hardship were able to apply for assistance, including to pay for their accommodation. This assistance means that John and the Ecolodge team will be able to recover some of the costs of keeping people housed.

John is matter-of-fact about how much he’s helped his residents over the past few months.

“Putting someone out the gate during a pandemic—”, John shakes his head. “We just made it work.”

But for people like Gonzalo, John is a classic example of Kiwi kindness.  

What is Visitor Care Manaaki Manuhiri?

Working with Te Tari Taiwhenua, Department of Internal Affairs, who is managing the New Zealand Government’s Foreign Nationals Impacted by COVID-19 Programme, New Zealand Red Cross is delivering in-kind assistance to help foreign nationals meet basic needs, such as food and accommodation. Find out more here. 

How can I apply?

People who are in need and on temporary (work, student, visitor) and Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas can check their eligibility and apply through foreignnationals.services.govt.nz. The programme will run for three months.

To find out what support you might be eligible for, head to https://covid19.govt.nz/business/covid-19-financial-support-tool/.