Annemarie is the magazines editor and regular columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Homelessness: Strength in numbers

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Tauranga couple Charlotte and Steve (not their real names) have been living and sleeping in their car since November. Photo / John Borren
Tauranga couple Charlotte and Steve (not their real names) have been living and sleeping in their car since November. Photo / John Borren

In an old model European car, Tauranga couple Charlotte and Steve sip steaming Jarrah coffee out of a flask.

They could be just enjoying a quick coffee in the park before starting the day. They are not.

Charlotte, 45, and Steve, 38, have been living and sleeping in their car since November.

They had been renting but had to leave and could not find another rental. Born and bred in Tauranga, the couple have tirelessly searched for a rental using agencies, Trade Me, Facebook and newspapers.

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They have had no luck. Steve said there were up to 100 applicants for each house and it felt "impossible" to find something.

"We are at the stage we would rent anything.

A unit, a room, a sleepout. Even a house bus on a bit of dirt would be better than a car."

Steve and Charlotte are not their real names.

They have spoken on the condition of anonymity. But they do want to tell their story.

Steve has a bad hip which gives him a lot of pain, so much that he hobbles. He jokingly refers to it as his "pain in the arse" - sciatica worsened by sleeping every night in the car.

The couple recline the seats but they don't go fully back, so they have got used to sleeping almost in a sitting position.

There is the Women's Refuge. But even if they would take me, I wouldn't take the bed of a woman that is being beaten or something. That is not right with me.
Charlotte

Even worse are the cold and lack of ventilation. The couple both suffer asthma.

"Summer was not so bad, but we still had to have the windows up because you don't want to get robbed or anything.

"Now it is really cold we have to put the windows up or we would freeze. But then we have no air. Put the window down a bit and we are shivering. Sometimes I am putting the window up and down all night," says Steve.

Charlotte says the cold stops her sleeping.

"Now it's winter, it's not good at nights. Last night was so cold I just sat awake with my thoughts waiting for the sun to come up," said Charlotte.

"I feel bad for him, because he is in pain. He could go to the men's night shelter and be warm, stretch his leg out in a bed, but they do not take women. He doesn't want to leave me."

Charlotte said the lack of emergency shelters for women is a problem.

"There is the Women's Refuge. But even if they would take me, I wouldn't take the bed of a woman that is being beaten or something. That is not right with me."

Steve jokes that you have to adapt to park toilet routines. The park toilets, he says, close at 9pm, which means they have to drive to Sulphur Point because that is the only 24-hour toilet they know of.

Charlotte says she finds the lack of washing and hygiene facilities hard.

"You can joke about it, you have to. But in seriousness, not being able to shower, change, have privacy - for a woman, well, it's really, really hard."

Steve says the car is all he owns. It is, in effect, his house.

Both sickness beneficiaries, the couple say they have told Work and Income they are living in a car.

"And Winz is just like, 'you can't give us the address of a car'. We are like, 'well we don't have any other address'."

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The back seat is piled with clothes and blankets.

"We need to thin it out as the clothes are taking over the car. People often bring us blankets and clothes ... I could put on layer after layer of clothes.

"They mean well and we are grateful but we are not short of blankets now. What we are short of is a house," said Charlotte.

One gift that they were so grateful for was a gas cooker.

"This was from a guy who was living in a van himself. He said, 'Mate, take this cooker, you will need it in the winter.'

They buy food from the supermarket to cook up, like frozen veges, beans and schnitzel.

Charlotte said all the people in cars look out for each other.

"We park up together because there is safety in numbers.

"We might be living in a car but we're tidy. We throw our rubbish away. It is hard to heat water though, but McDonald's will give you free boiled water if you ask nicely. I got that tip from another woman in the car ... funny ... we women in cars are now sharing our cooking tips."

"I worked out how to heat up beans using tin foil. I invented that one aye and now everyone's doing it," adds Steve.

Charlotte said nights are hard. It is hard to think positive in the dark and cold.

The couple try to stay hopeful that they will find somewhere.

"When the sun comes up in the morning and you look out at the world, it gives me hope for the future that things will get better. We have a warm drink and sit and watch the sun rise over the water like we are now. The warm drink, it warms me inside and gives me some comfort that there will be an end to this," she says.

"You have to keep yourself strong," says Steve.

"Because otherwise what are we going to do, dig a big hole and put ourselves in it and call it goodnight?"

- Bay of Plenty Times

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