Like every large metropolitan city around the world there are issues with homelessness, rough sleeping and couch surfing. For most of us, as we walk to work or do our shopping at night, we only see the those that are obvious and visible to us. Those who are sleeping in door ways with blankets and the odd cup left out for those willing to put a few coins in. Over the years our approach to the homeless has also changed with many now preferring to buy some ready made food and leave that instead of money. In Auckland the challenge of homelessness is there for all to see, much like it is in Sydney or New York – but to put everyone in the same bucket would be foolhardy and yet our approach to addressing the problem is far from adequate.
In 2013 a piece of research emerged indicating that more than 40,000 New Zealanders were considered homeless or rough sleeping. At the point around 500 were in the CBD of the nations largest city, Auckland, and of those an estimated 70% were Maori. The reasons for homelessness and rough sleeping vary widely and this is what we all need to understand. A portion of homeless and rough sleeping kiwi’s are those who come from our working poor. Not earning enough to keep up with the cost of living, increasing rent and so on. Yet here they are. They drive our school buses, work in our supermarkets, offices and Polytechnics. As you and I retire for the night to our home owns they retire their cars. Some with Children in tow. There is one story of a mum who will drop her kids off at school in the morning on her way to work. Everything looks normal from the outside. She heads to work and after work will pick the kids up. The difference being there home is a Council car park.
These working poor New Zealanders are the same ones left behind as the workforce becomes more heavily casualised and many are working for more than one employer. There job security relies on the ebb and flow of small business New Zealand mostly. There chances of pulling themselves up are minimal and then there are the kids. The same kids who don’t have access to the same things we now all take for granted. The internet for example. In the Hutt Valley a trial is going on in homes where parents can’t afford internet connectivity so the kids go without and falling behind those who have it. Imagine living your nights in a car. Nutrition, health and general wellbeing are not just issues for those living on the streets who are unemployed and who might have a mental health problem.
For those suffering mental health issues they too slip between the cracks. One early thirties man I spoke with recently said that the last time he was sectioned under the mental health act he ended up in a mental health ward at a local hospital. Upon discharge he returned to the same life. With no fixed abode, address and no phone number how could a follow-up be done? Then there is the well being side of things; where people suffering some forms of mental health challenges don’t have access to regular medication that could lead to a false sense of why they are on the streets.
Just off K Road I spoke with a teenage boy. He was 16 years old and had run away from home. He said to me he just couldn’t stay at home anymore after being beaten constantly, watching his mother being hit. He tried to take his own life and then found life on the streets. He has become a professional at side stepping authorities, doesn’t go to school and doesn’t know where to go from here. When he wants a warm bed at night he will often rough sleep at friends houses. His future looks bleak.
Keith is in his mid sixties. For many years he worked as a tradie, a brickie. He tells me he had worked since he was 14 years old. He got married, had kids and all was well until his life began to spiral out of control. In his fifties the joints began to give out and his time as a tradie was coming to and end. He had no idea what to do next and did not know where to turn. Drinking ensued and before too long his marriage ended, he was out of the family home and was afraid to talk to his kids – for fear they thought he was useless. For two years an underpass has been his home. With him in a tiny bag with kiwis on it are the few personal possessions he has. He jokes with me that he was once given a bathroom kit with shampoo and conditioner in it by a passerby but that he had to wait for it to rain hard before he could use it. He tells me there is still half a bottle left and pulls it from his bag.
Just off Vulcan Lane in the CBD is the new face of homelessness that many would not have imagined.
Asian, young and alone. Feeling that he has shamed his parents back in China after failing at his studies he is feeling lost. He is about to be kicked out of his share flat because he lost his part time job several weeks ago and cant afford to keep up with the rent. He is part of a group of international students we attract to New Zealand, take their money and then leave them to their own devices.
The stories go on and on. From sleeping in parks and doorways, under bridges and in laneways, sleeping on friends couches, in cars, in carparks of supermarkets, both employed and unemployed, suffering mental health issues or not – young, middle aged and old. This is the reality of homelessness and rough sleeping in New Zealand.
The challenge for Government is not just one of housing affordability and building more stock – some of the issues run deep and wide across our communities and beg the discussion about where to from here. Of all I have been involved with over the years from international aid and development to suicide prevention this is what I would suggest:
A more coordinated approach when it comes to bringing down the silo’s of Government Agencies and creating a more structured way of engaging. Its not a single Government agency that is involved in the life of someone – it’s a multitude. One Agency needs to take that lead and my suggestion is the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).
Bring back to the table the discussion of a real living wage for all New Zealanders. The harsh reality is the form of work we used to have is disappearing in our move towards this thing called the gig economy – so how are we to keep up if our incomes don’t? Aligned with this is an honest discussion of what we need to do in terms of stimulating further wage growth.
Greater opportunity for outreach – going to people as opposed to waiting for people to come to us. We often run the risk of building something in the hope people will come. Rarely does that happen when it comes to social services. We need more people out on the streets which means a greater investment in Community Development Workers. From a Maori perspective more investment in Maori Wardens across our Capital Cities would be welcome particularly given many of them cut across the myriad of whanau social challenges.
Developing a national workforce plan aligned with an employment and job security strategy – in order to meet the demand being placed upon us we need to respond to it. Without the workforce there to meet the demand people will continue falling through the cracks. Then there is a prevention measure to try and reduce a portion of those who fall into homelessness after exiting State care or incarceration. Doing more to work with people before they are released is fundamental.
Finally, increasing the funding available to the social services sector to help them scale up programs where the evidence suggests they are working or building in more funding to build growth into a program. What we cannot do and should not do is increase compliance and administration costs on the social services sector thereby reducing the amount that ultimately reached the intended New Zealanders.
Housing is a basic human right, access to food and health services is a basic human right. Access to the internet for our children is a basic human right, access to work and education is a basic human right. Its not just about building houses, its about rebuilding our communities, the fabric of our society.
Matthew Tukaki is the Chair of the National Maori Authority, Chair of New Zealand Maori Council Auckland District and Chair of NewsNow and Suicide Prevention Australia
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