Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Homeless family: The realities of living in a van

A family who lived for four months in their van kept going to work and school throughout their ordeal - and their daughter was close to winning a scholarship to St Cuthbert's College.

The two parents and six children aged 7 to 17 got up early every day to shower and eat breakfast at the mother's workplace.

Their 11-year-old daughter has posted on Facebook under the pseudonym "TA" about how she made lunches for all the children - "but sometimes there's barely anything".

"It's hard to do my homework with my family around," she wrote.

But despite being homeless, she almost won one of four scholarships offered by elite St Cuthbert's College to Year 7 Maori and Pacific students each year.

Favona Primary School deputy principal Heather Harvey, who encouraged her to apply and drove her to the test, said the college offered "fabulous resources" that the girl would never have access to at Mangere's Decile 1 high schools.

"She's a very lovely, capable girl," she said. "She was the head of our kapahaka team."

Mrs Harvey also wrote a letter supporting the family's application for social housing, but had no response.

"Things have been very hard for them. I just can't understand how they lived," she said.

The family, who are now at Te Puea Marae with other homeless families, moved to Auckland two and a half years ago from the South Island. The father, aged 34, worked for many years in the fishing industry and was often at sea for weeks at a time.

He got a night-shift job in the seafood industry in Auckland and the family rented a privately-owned three-bedroom house with a two-bedroom sleepout in Mangere.

But they got into debt and handed over all their income to Christians Against Poverty, a budgeting agency which paid their rent and other bills, leaving them a basic allowance for groceries.

Last September their landlord evicted them for rent arrears which the Tenancy Tribunal later determined to be $4983.71.

They moved in with the mother's sister and her family in a tiny two-bedroom Housing NZ unit. It was stressful for everyone, especially the father.

"He was working on night shift. He was over-tired. He just lost the plot," his wife said.

"He got angry and he and his bosses had a huge argument. He had a suspension with pay, and when he went to a meeting with the boss that's when he was let go. It was just before Christmas."

The family decided to make the best of it.

"After I calmed down about him not having a job any more, and he calmed down, he had always wanted his own business ... so I said to him, 'Go to study, use this entire year to get your papers'," the mother said.

So the father enrolled at Manukau Institute of Technology, the mother went on a benefit and found casual work, and they spent much of the summer in tents on the lawns of various relatives around Auckland and Tauranga.

They have been in their van since February, surviving thanks to the mother getting a temporary fulltime contract at her workplace for four months.

She is still also on a benefit because she said Work and Income's call centre advised her that she would have to wait 13 weeks to get back on the benefit after the contract ended.

"I can't afford 13 weeks on no money," she said.

They slept in their van's eight seats, tilting the seats back as far as they could go, but daughter TA said it was still hard to sleep and she got very tired.

It affected her netball: "I was slower on the court." But she never dozed off at school.

"At the end of the day you have to teach your kids, no matter what you go through, just keep going," the father said.

"All of our kids are pretty much over-achievers."

The parents take various children to rugby league, netball, volleyball and hip-hop practices.

Their health has suffered. The mother has lupus, a 17-year-old daughter has developed a skin ailment, and a 9-year-old daughter who had an epileptic fit last year has had two more seizures since the family became homeless.

TA, the 11-year-old, wrote: "I'm doing good at school, but I've slipped because it's hard, eight of us living in our van."

The mother said the family applied for social housing last November but were rated only "A5", well short of A15 which Manukau East MP Jenny Salesa said was the highest rating she had seen.

They were offered a state house in Pukekohe but turned it down because it was too far from the children's schools and activities around Mangere. The marae is now supporting them to apply again.

"We have settled down in here," the mother said. "You get a sense of belonging here, everyone is an aunty, an uncle, a nan or a koro."

St Cuthbert's College principal Lynda Reid said she felt for TA and encouraged her to apply for another scholarship in Year 9.

• Work and Income's website says the 13-week benefit stand-down does not apply to temporary work contracts. It applies only to people who are dismissed from a job for misconduct or quit voluntarily.

- NZ Herald

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