On Sunday night I was sitting on my couch, curled up under a blanket with the heater on and a cat purring blissfully away beside me. It was the perfect way to spend a cold night. I was perusing Facebook, as one does, when all of a sudden I was confronted with a very harsh reality. In amongst the free plants, missing pets and restaurant recommendations on a local noticeboard, someone had posted about needing somewhere to stay for the night. It was about 9pm on the coldest night of the year so far and she needed somewhere for her and her partner as they were cold and desperate.
I've read countless stories of rising homelessness in our cities over the past few months, but it took it popping up in my newsfeed while I was all tucked up, nice and cosy for it to feel real that there are people out there in the freezing cold with nowhere to go. My heart leaped into my throat and tears welled up. I simultaneously felt grateful and guilty. Then I felt angry. How did we get here, New Zealand? When did we let things get so bad that the problem now seems insurmountable?
The reasons for homelessness are many and varied. Regardless of how or why someone ends up without somewhere warm to lay their head, as a society it is our responsibility to all pitch in and provide for them. It is not our place to judge, it is our place to help. Historically, New Zealand has always had low numbers of homeless. We've had a good welfare system, state housing, systems in place to stop people ending up without a roof over their heads. When I was growing up in Wellington we had so few homeless, the longest-standing ones had nicknames - Blanket Man and Juggles. They were the city's beloved stragglers, who'd chosen to not accept the help offered, instead choosing to live on the streets. But it was a choice, nonetheless.
For many now, there is no choice. Rising house prices have led to rising rents, while our wages stay low. The shortage of housing compounds the issue. Prime Minister John Key last week told those living in their cars to go to Winz for help. Good luck getting anything out of Winz if you don't have a home address for the forms, the social media response screamed.
This week Housing Minister Nick Smith called the recent surge in homelessness a figment of people's imagination. Now, we all know kids have active imaginations, but I don't know any kids who would dream of living in a car, or a tent or a stranger's garage. But that is what our children, our parents, our people, are increasingly forced to do. I don't know a single parent who would choose for their kid to have those memories. But they have no choice. It's a last resort.
Smith went on to say that homelessness is a long-term challenge. He is right in that regard. But the fact it's a long-term challenge means we should have seen this coming months, even years ago and taken action then to stop it getting to this point.
We should have taken measures to control the Auckland housing market years ago, as its ripple effect on the rest of the country is certainly partly to blame. But we didn't. And now we are faced with a desperate situation, where welfare agencies are stretched and volunteers are increasingly seeing families and children with nowhere to go.
Yes, it is a long-term challenge and any solutions will need to have a long-term view. But we also need to take immediate action. The time to bury our heads in the sand and pretend this isn't a very real problem is long gone. It disappeared along with reasonably priced homes in our country's biggest city.
It's no use pointing the finger, playing the blame game, saying we should have done this, that or the other. Should, coulda, woulda. Didn't. Instead we need to take immediate steps to alleviate the problem. The longer we leave it, the more disastrous its effects will be. Because while the surge in homelessness hasn't been instant, neither are its effects. As long as we have kids with no beds, their ability to learn will suffer, and future generations of Kiwis will also suffer. This doesn't just affect those looking for somewhere to call home. It affects those of us lucky enough to have warm beds, too. And none of us can afford to be silent and turn the other way any longer.