Lizzie Marvelly: Cycle of homelessness can end

The concept of choice, when it comes to homelessness, is more often than not the decision people make when they have no other options. Photo / Greg Bowker
The concept of choice, when it comes to homelessness, is more often than not the decision people make when they have no other options. Photo / Greg Bowker

Before last July I had no idea how it felt to sleep out on the concrete in the middle of winter. I never knew that your bones ache, not just from the cold, but also from the constant contact with the hard, uncompromising surface. I didn't know that the ground feels much colder than the air, or that sleeping in the city means being woken up almost hourly " if you get to sleep at all. I never realised that sleeping outside with a group of strangers can activate ancient human instincts, leading you to cling to any person you know, regardless of how shallow or recent your connection.

As a privileged woman who has always been able to rely on having a roof over her head, I had a lot to learn. My ignorance, however, was a bittersweet blessing that an increasing number of New Zealanders can no longer count on. As the weeks roll by and we fall deeper into the winter months, more than 41,000 Kiwis have no place to call home. And in our proud little nation, we all know that's not the Kiwi way.

On July 7 I will be sleeping out in inner-city Auckland for another cold night. For me, it will be one night, out of this year's 366, that I will spend out of my warm bed, attempting to raise funds for Lifewise to allow them to continue their great work in getting people off the streets and into housing. For tens of thousands of other Kiwis around the country sleeping in their cars, on acquaintances' couches, under bridges and on the streets, it'll be just another night of a bleak reality where instability is the only constant.

The Lifewise Big Sleep Out is an admittedly vanilla version of temporary homelessness. Participants huddle in sleeping bags in the quad of AUT while security guards patrol the perimeter. Dinner and breakfast are served for everyone in the whare kai. It is not a true representation of homelessness but it is powerful nonetheless. Lying under the threatening rain clouds, dreaming of my soft bed after hearing from young people who spent years on the streets, I certainly began to grasp just how difficult life would be if I had to sleep rough every night.

There is a segment of our society that will assert that homelessness is a choice. I don't doubt it is an honestly held belief but I am almost certain it is born of ignorance. "Choice" is relative. The kinds of choices I have made in my life are a world away from those that severely housing-deprived people have faced. While I pondered what to study at university, other teenagers wondered whether living on the streets would be safer than staying in a house where violence and abuse were the norm.

The concept of choice, when it comes to homelessness, is more often than not the decision people make when they have no other options. It is completely understandable that sentient human beings would take ownership over such a choice, as self-determination is not the exclusive domain of the privileged, but we betray our own obliviousness when we attempt to reconcile a homeless person's decision-making process with our own.

As one person who had lived on the streets told me, "the majority of people don't want to sleep on the streets. I'm not an addict, I have a degree, I [was] student of the year in 2009, but I have been homeless too. Most of the myths are based on old wives' tales. I'd say everyone is just one pay away from being on the street."

What stands out to me the most, however, in among all of the countless damning media stories about homelessness, is the complete lack of the most basic thing of all: leadership. Who exactly is accountable for our skyrocketing homelessness? Housing New Zealand? Paula Bennett? Winz? Nick Smith? While we are currently witnessing plenty of buck-passing, we've yet to see a leader stand up and tell us that they have everything in hand.

Such reassurances would likely be premature, however, as we also seem to lack any kind of coherent national strategy to fix the problem. The scramble to implement stop-gap measures such as the $5000 bribe to move people outside of Auckland, or the emergency grants to fund motel bills that propel vulnerable people into thousands of dollars of debt has been intriguing to watch " rather like a train crash " but it has done little to address the core of the problem or to provide any kind of pathway towards a solution, or even moderate improvement.

As any business or organisation knows, the only way to address a problem is to come up with a plan, with targets and measures and accountability. There is a compelling economic argument for reducing homelessness " it is estimated that $65,000 is spent by taxpayers on each homeless person each year. With 41,000 homeless New Zealanders currently costing taxpayers billions of dollars annually, one would think that formulating a well-researched plan would be a priority.

And we don't even have to come up with it ourselves. There is already a proven, evidence-supported model that has been successful in both the US and Canada and could be implemented here. It's called Housing First, and it centres on the idea that when you house people first, then align the support services they need to be successful in their lives, the cycle of homelessness stops. It is much more cost effective that maintaining people on the street, and it creates real change, rather than temporary respite before the cycle starts again.

Reducing homelessness is achievable. It is not just "one of those things". In New Zealand especially, we have no justifiable reason to accept that 41,000 of our fellow Kiwis have no safe place to lay down their heads each night. Enough is enough.

• Go to bigsleepout.org.nz/page/lizziemarvelly to sponsor Lizzie in the Big Sleep Out.

- NZ Herald

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