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

Annemarie Quill: Hidden homeless is our responsibility

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There's mounting concerns about people who don't have a home to sleep in. Photo/file
There's mounting concerns about people who don't have a home to sleep in. Photo/file

This year the Bay of Plenty Times' #Our Hidden Homeless series highlighted the city's homeless crisis. The series challenged the stereotype of homelessness as an old man on a park bench drinking out of a brown paper bag.

The homeless we found on the streets were families, couples and young children. When we began this series in the depths of a cold winter, it was an eye-opener to talk to families living in cars, such as Priscilla Pukeroa and family, who slept in their car at Memorial Park for six weeks while they searched for a rental.

Or couple Charlotte and Steve who lived in their car in the park for six months.

Or Christine who slept in her car every night in the park while holding a full-time job.
Not one-off war stories, it was happening all over town.

The city was galvanised into action. A Tauranga Hospital trust fund was set up for vulnerable families.

The city gained emergency housing for families thanks to buildings on The Strand gifted rent-free for a year by the Tauranga Moana Maori Trust Board to Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust, which then had 140 homeless people on its books.

Locals rushed to help people like Liz Kite and Tania Lewis-Rickard whose Under the Stars and Kai Aroha teams fed the homeless every week.

The council began a steering group to tackle the city's homeless crisis, which Roger Taylor, chief executive of the Western Bay Primary Health Organisation called "diabolical" and who challenged our level of empathy, asking: "What happened to the Kiwi psyche that we allow this? To what degree are we not showing an interest in the children of this bloody country? ... Where is the level of disgust that as a country we have allowed this to emerge?"

I spoke to Taylor again this week. He said while awareness had been raised, his team were not seeing any noticeable difference.

Tommy Wilson, executive director of Te Tuinga agreed, and said that we had the wake-up call, but his team still had 40 families sleeping in cars, garages and tents in the bush.

Liz Kite and Tania Lewis-Rickard, feeding the homeless on the front line, said the situation was worse. Lewis-Rickard feeds around 15 children. Some kids turn up obviously very hungry, and their parents have gone without food for days.

Our hidden homeless may still be hidden, but they have not gone away. We still know of families in cars and sheds and tents. A report commissioned by the council backs up our findings that families with young children and homeless mothers are sleeping rough in our city, some even in public toilets. The report found that the risk of becoming homeless in Tauranga had increased.

Key goals for the group were to improve co-ordination between agencies dealing with homelessness and to investigate successful programmes in Auckland and Hamilton.
It seems clear a more co-ordinated approach is needed.

It also seems clear that we cannot wait for winter.

Time must move at a crawl when you are sleeping under a bridge. But not as slow as the wheels of bureaucracy. Reports, research, committees and red tape are the enemies of solutions for the homeless.

There are two great bits of news this week.

Firstly, Whare Tauranga is applying to expand its emergency housing by adding two homes which would enable it to house 60 families a year.

The cost to the taxpayer doesn't change as the Ministry is already paying out money to motel owners for emergency housing. Motels provide a roof and little else. Housing solutions need to be enabling rather than just sticking a plaster on a problem.

Families may have found themselves homeless for a number of reasons. It is easy to point the finger at some bad choices made. But the aim should be to help move people where possible from terrible situations to empowering ones by facilitating access to services, particularly with budgeting or addiction or work skills.

The second piece of good news is the signing of the state housing portfolio to Accessible Properties, which plans to add 150 houses to the existing 1140.

I have confidence this provider will do a better job than the Government. I like the fact the group is chaired by our own Paul Adams, who I believe is a good man.

Yes, a businessman and property developer, but also a philanthropist who has the good of the city at heart and a genuine care for people.

Social conscience and business flair are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, those in need of social housing will benefit from a greater pool of better-managed houses by those with experience in the sector who will use funds wisely. Accessible Properties will also engage with a range of social services, which tenants can access and has a memorandum of understanding with local iwi.

Solutions for homelessness are not just about roofs over heads but fixing families for the future.

Why should you care?

Why should this niggle you as you sup bubbles and throw another snarler on the barbie?
You didn't cause homelessness. It is the people's own fault they got themselves into this situation, nothing to do with you, right?

Wrong.

It has everything to do with you when young children are sleeping in public toilets, in tents and cars.

Even if it doesn't tug at your heart, Mr Taylor points to the latest findings of the University of Otago's internationally renowned research programme that has followed progress of 1000 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972-73, from birth to midlife.

The study found a small segment of the population accounts for a disproportionate share of costly use across health care, criminal justice, and social welfare systems and paediatric tests of brain health can identify these adults as young as age 3.

Which proves the socio-economic benefit of positive early intervention, and caring for babies and children and families.

Children who grow up scared, peeping out from blankets over car windows, or moved from house to house are all our responsibility. The tragic outcomes of young lives started without a home have bad consequences for us all.

On the flipside, investing in tackling the effects of childhood disadvantage through early intervention for families could benefit all, by reducing costs in the long-term.
Housing is a basic human need.

It is hard to sleep well in one's own bed knowing that there are families and children in our city without one.

Here is to a 2017 when everyone joins forces to tackle our hidden homeless.

He waka eke noa.

A canoe which we are all in with no exception.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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