The case of a desperate young mother who was turned away by Work and Income shows the "heartlessness and lack of common decency'' inherent in the organisation, former Green Party MP Sue Bradford says.
The 20-year-old woman and her 4-month-old baby went to the Gisborne Work and Income office to ask for emergency assistance because they had nowhere to go but staff could only offer them an appointment eight days away.
Work and Income's regional director has since apologised for that,
Ms Bradford, who was part of last year's Government-appointed Alternative Welfare Working Group, said the case demonstrated that Work and Income's motivation was not to help people in need but rather to reduce the number of beneficiaries.
"The culture is one of deliberately grinding people down and treating them with contempt because they're coming for help - because they're asking the state to help.
"They're not there to help, they're there to follow the systems. It just demonstrates to me the heartlessness and lack of common decency of Work and Income.''
Ms Bradford said it also highlighted the desperate shortage of emergency housing in many parts of the country.
"Yet somehow this Government is cutting back on the provision of state housing. It's cutting down the state housing waiting lists and, as far as I know, they're not putting anything extra into emergency housing. Yet people, all the time, are being stuck in situations like this and there's nowhere to turn.''
The woman and her baby were eventually helped by real estate agent Bronwyn Kay, who organised for her to stay in a vacant house. "I'm looking at this girl with her 4-month-old baby and thinking, `what is happening in this country?' Is it really possible that there is more support for a penguin than for a mother and her child here in New Zealand? What happens to people like this?'', Ms Kay told the Gisborne Herald.
"She was a nice girl. I drove her around and I talked to her about going home to Auckland but that wasn't an option.''
Salvation Army community ministries co-ordinator Bev Hauiti said the mother received food parcel assistance from them the next day.
She confirmed the lack of emergency housing in Gisborne.
The young mother said she was very grateful and happy to have her own space after arriving from Auckland in April, pregnant with her first child.
"I love Gisborne. When I moved here, I was staying with my cousin. We fell out and I had to find somewhere else to go. I stayed at a friend's for a night but I didn't want to put my problems on them.''
Work and Income East Coast regional director Annie Aranui said that given her circumstances, the mum should have been given an emergency appointment.
"We met with her today, after visiting her at her new place, and have helped with the rent and bond. Other assistance has also been provided and we have discussed what support she needs going forward.''
Labour Party housing spokeswoman Moana Mackey said the lack of emergency housing in Gisborne had been an issue for a long time, but stubbornly high unemployment and increased pressure on family budgets had exacerbated the problem in recent years.
"No single government agency has responsibility for emergency accommodation. What this means is that those who become homeless and need to be temporarily housed while they wait for a Work and Income or Housing New Zealand assessment often find themselves being bounced from one government agency to another.''
Recent changes to the way Housing New Zealand operates would only make the problem worse and see even more vulnerable people struggling to find housing, she said.