Hunger strike a protest

By Peter de Graaf


A man who smashed windows at a Northland Work and Income office after being refused a food grant is now on a hunger strike.

Sam Kuha said he had not eaten since Tuesday, when he made the 4km trek by motorised wheelchair to Kaikohe and shattered two of the building's windows. Mr Kuha said he would have smashed more but his hammer had broken.

After a discussion with police - Mr Kuha maintains he has not been charged - he returned home, again braving the open road in his wheelchair, and he has not eaten since.

The invalid beneficiary, who lost a leg and use of one arm when he was run over 20 years ago, said he was drinking water with salt and sugar to avoid dehydration.

He had not smashed the windows in a blind rage but after thinking about how to draw attention to what he said was a nonsensical policy around food grants.

The previous day he had "thrown a wobbly" when staff wouldn't look at his bank statements and refused to give him a $40 food voucher and $20 for petrol.

"I got a bit hot and bothered because they wouldn't look at my figures," he said.

Under Winz rules, anyone who has received three special needs grants must see a budgeter before getting another. Managers could use their discretion to override that policy but chose not to, Mr Kuha said.

The 59-year-old said he had been to a budgeter last time he reached the limit, and neither his income nor expenses had changed since then. That time, the budgeter could not make his $244 a week benefit stretch to meet his bills, and his situation was no different now.

Making him repeat the exercise was "senseless" and, in any case, he said there was a two-week wait to see a budgeter; too long for someone who was hungry.

After four days on hunger strike, Mr Kuha said he was having difficulty sleeping and could not get warm. He had, however, stopped feeling hungry and his stomach was no longer rumbling.

Last week, he had only $18 left to buy food after paying for regular expenses such as his mortgage, insurance, power and rates, all paid by weekly instalments. Mr Kuha said he did not drink, smoke or take drugs.

He had no petrol, warrant or registration for his car - hence the trip into town by wheelchair - and his fridge was empty.

When he smashed the windows, he wanted to "make a noise" and draw attention to the food grant policy. He went early in the morning when no clients were inside and made sure no staff were near the windows.

"I didn't go there with the intention of hurting anyone," Mr Kuha said. "I'm not against budgeting, it's necessary. It's just going back and back again ... I'm against the process."

The only official who had contacted him since then was the police officer, who had called him later that day to make sure he was okay.

While Winz would not give him a $40 voucher it had enough money to hire a second security guard for the Kaikohe office, he said. He had worked all his life prior to the accident, as a bushman, earth mover and cafe operator.

"So nobody can call me a bludger ... I hate going to that place [Winz]. It takes my wairua away."

Mr Kuha said he would refuse to eat until Winz changed its policy.

- Northern Advocate

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