Sonya is a social issues reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

Hidden homelessness has horrendous impact on health

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Photo/thinkstock
Photo/thinkstock

The "hidden homeless" are becoming more prevalent in Tauranga as the housing shortage drives people to live in garages, caravans and cars.

A school has reported that some parents are sleeping in their cars while their children stay with relatives, and a community centre says overcrowding is becoming the norm with its clients.

Philip King, general manager community services at Tauranga City Council said the numbers of "hidden homeless" in Tauranga were growing due to issues including lack of money, the high cost of rental accommodation and social issues preventing them from being able to access rental accommodation.

"These 'hidden homeless' make up the vast majority of homeless people in Tauranga " the visible rough sleepers are only a small part of the wider issue."

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Mr King said the term "homeless" also applied to people who had no security in their housing - they might be staying in night shelters, backpackers or boarding houses.

People living in unsuitable housing such as garages, those sleeping out without electricity or water, or "couch surfing" " moving between friends or family members, with no fixed address of their own, were also homeless.

"The number of homeless complaints we receive has increased from an average of six per month last financial year to an average of 10 per month in this financial year.

"These complaints range from people sleeping in reserves in tents, to people sleeping in cars, on the street, or in bus stops.

"There are also a number of people who we come into contact with on a regular basis who sleep in tents or cars, but generally keep out of the public eye. Some are families or couples looking for work and accommodation."

This is becoming the norm, where there are sofas in garages that people are sleeping on and living on.
Tauha Te Kani

The council was working with other agencies to understand and address homelessness and emergency housing needs.

Those agencies include the police, the local health board, the night shelter, Under the Stars, government agencies, churches and other community groups.

Tauha Te Kani, Merivale Community Centre manager, said overcrowding was becoming the norm with the centre's clients.

"There are people living in garages. One that comes to mind was a home visit to a young mum with three young children under five, all living in a garage.

"This is becoming the norm, where there are sofas in garages that people are sleeping on and living on.

"There's health concerns, but also concerns about perpetuating a life cycle of poverty and the impact that has on young children's ability to realise their potential to prosper, to do well in school and gain an education."

Mr Te Kani said the main issues driving the hidden homeless problem were a shortage of suitable housing, a lack of employment and a lack of education limiting job options.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief operating officer Pete Chandler said the board was also seeing a growth in "the new homeless".

"We all need to be concerned for these families that are really struggling and are resorting to living in sub-optimal conditions."

The issues with housing have become more apparent to community health workers, who have told Mr Chandler of increasingly difficult living conditions of families they were visiting.

"In the last six months we've become aware of the amount of returned mail growing significantly.

"This was raised by our Orderlies Department, who questioned why all this mail was coming back to us.

"We are linking this, in part, to the considerable difficulty in finding affordable rentals locally.

"What we are most concerned about is grossly sub-optimal living conditions for some families.

"This significantly increases their vulnerability to winter illnesses, especially respiratory conditions, where the Bay has a higher than normal rate of hospital admissions already.

"In a property boom there are always winners and losers but it is sad and worrying that the losers seem to be some of our most disadvantaged families. These are the ones who really need our help and support before their health and wellbeing is affected."

Mr Chandler was especially concerned about how homelessness impacted people's health.

"We are worried because we know, as winter approaches and temperatures drop this will place significant extra demand on hospital beds and the healthcare system.

"We already have relatively high numbers of what would generally be classified as avoidable hospital admissions.

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"We know, from our experience, that when the temperature drops below 10C, we get an almost immediate spike in admissions for respiratory illnesses and other potentially avoidable medical conditions."

Mr Chandler said increasing numbers of people living at unofficial addresses meant the health board was finding it difficult to notify people of hospital appointments, which was especially concerning when it came to the health of children.

He urged people to update contact details with their GPs.

Merivale School principal Jan Tinetti said 20 to 30 families from the school community last year were among the "hidden homeless".

"We also had families who had to split up. Often this was so the parents ensured their children were housed within friends' or family's houses but they would sleep in cars etcetera."

Mrs Tinetti said she had visited a number of families bunking down in garages of a house where there may be another 15 or so people sleeping inside, with one bathroom and one toilet.

Mrs Tinetti said the school's social worker worked with families on getting housing but this could take months.

"We have a wonderful network of people, including a wonderful team from St Mary's School, who supply blankets and other such essentials to ensure the families can be as comfortable as possible."

Crammed into tiny places

For people struggling to find somewhere to live, crowding into a small house with friends or family may be the only option available.

Friends Harry and Keith, whose last names the Bay of Plenty Times agreed not to publish so their families would not be identified, will get a house together after living in overcrowded conditions. Harry shared a three-bedroom house with three adults and four children.

The sitting room was being used as a bedroom, which meant the living spaces were the bathroom, kitchen and laundry. He spent as much time as possible away from home.

Harry, who is on the benefit and has health problems, said he had been trying to get into a state house, but had found it hard. He was concerned about what would happen when the city's state houses were sold by the Government.

"The only way they'll be able to afford to maintain the houses is to put up the rents."

Keith shares a two-bedroom home with his brother, two teenagers and a 21-year-old. He is sleeping in a shed while the other four live in the house.

"I just can't wait to move out."

Harry said in Merivale, overcrowding was obvious. You just had to look around and see the number of cars parked in front of a single house.

"I know a whanau that were really desperate, they couldn't find a place, so the man had to give up his job and move to Taranaki. It's just so sad."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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