Changing face of homelessness

By Cassandra Mason

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MY HOME: A Masterton woman lives in this cabin on a friend's property because she can't afford high rents.
MY HOME: A Masterton woman lives in this cabin on a friend's property because she can't afford high rents.

THE country's housing crisis is affecting thousands of low-income New Zealanders.

But unlike the homeless "streeties" sleeping rough in city doorways, many victims of this shortage often go unnoticed.

In New Zealand, homelessness is now defined as living situations where people with "no other options" to get safe and secure housing are either without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household, or living in uninhabitable housing.

New research from the University of Otago found about 34,000 Kiwis weren't able to access housing in 2006.

That's one in every 120 Kiwis without somewhere to live - which broadens the definition of homelessness and suggests the problem might be getting worse.

The research, done from the latest available Census and emergency housing data, is the first of its kind here and casts light on a population that - up until now - has stayed well off the radar.

Few statistics are available on our "severely housing deprived" population, but the study found many of these 34,000 were crowding in with family or friends, staying in boarding houses, camping grounds, emergency accommodation, in cars, or on the street.

Otago University researcher Dr Kate Amore says the homeless are often excluded from poverty and unemployment statistics, and not registered on social housing waiting lists.

"They are extremely disadvantaged, and it's great that we now have a way to produce robust numbers about the size of the problem and who's affected."

The study included everyone who couldn't access minimally adequate housing, even for rent.

It's not possible to forecast what the 2013 Census data will show, but the Christchurch earthquakes and global financial crisis are likely to have made things worse, Dr Amore says. Community agencies have reported a great increase in demand over the last five years.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect about our homeless population is how young many are, she says.

A quarter of the population was under 15 and another quarter between 15-24. That's half the country's entire homeless population aged under 25.

About a third of homeless adults were working, but still could not get a house for themselves or their family.

Many families were forced to share crowded housing arrangements to cut costs. Severely crowded housing is defined by a "two-bedroom deficit", meaning people are often sleeping in living areas and garages, Dr Amore says.

Overcrowding has serious health implications, particularly in terms of infectious diseases like rheumatic fever. Children are often worst affected.

The stereotype of the homeless person living on the street is beginning to change, Dr Amore says.

"It's definitely different to the picture of homelessness that we usually have."

Affordable homes
One of the biggest hurdles we face is a shortage of quality housing that low-income families can afford to live in, Dr Amore warns.

She also believes there's been too much focus on helping first-home buyers, rather than addressing the needs of New Zealand's homeless.

"[First-home buyers] are really important, but we've kind of ignored this side of the issue - everyone who can't access a house at all.

"The population is going to continue to grow so if the number of houses stays the same, the maths is pretty simple."

As of June this year, there were 3811 applicants on Housing New Zealand waiting lists - 357 of whom were considered homeless.

Earlier this month, delegates at a Public Health Association Conference were told thousands of New Zealanders who can't afford rental housing were being forced to live in camping grounds.

In Christchurch, emergency housing and shelters are struggling to cope with record high numbers of homeless women and children.

The Christchurch City Mission and YWCA say they are inundated with women and kids desperately seeking emergency housing, the Christchurch Star reported.

Before the earthquakes the YWCA did not have a waiting list, but now it's turning people away as wait lists reach 50 women - not including their children.

And it's not just the big cities struggling to house vulnerable residents.

Wairarapa cabin provider Just Cabins estimates at least 100 local families are living in cabins or caravans - mostly parked in backyards, the Wairarapa Times-Age reported.

One Masterton beneficiary in her 30s has found herself living in a cabin in a friend's backyard.

She pays $70 to rent the box-like lodgings - powered by a cord connected to her friend's home - and $120 to her friend for power and food.

The woman has no cooking facilities and no toilet or plumbing.

Living rough
Homeless people crammed into undesirable living conditions are still sheltered from the challenges faced by those sleeping on the streets.

Violence against homeless people took centre stage in recent months with two rough sleepers killed in Auckland's CBD.

Homeless man Steven Harris was stabbed to death in Myers Park on September 4.

The 54-year-old was known to attend the Urban Vineyard church, and would sometimes help dish out lunch for other homeless people.

His death followed that of Edwin Linder, 42, who died on August 3 after being savagely beaten in Mills Lane.

"He lived on the street by his own choice," Mr Linder's father, Rex, told the New Zealand Herald days after his son's death. "He wasn't really homeless, it's just the way he wanted to live.

"I know living on the street was Edwin's choice but he was still entitled to live in safety and peace. No one else had a right to interfere with him."

A 17-year-old has been charged with Mr Linder's murder.

City Mission homeless community team leader Wilf Holt says about 120 homeless people are sleeping rough on Auckland streets. One in five are women.

"I'm not talking about somebody who might get fired, and break up with their partner, and lose all their money and for a couple of nights might spend time in McDonald's."

How they end up on the street can be a complex journey, Mr Holt says.

"Obviously drugs and alcohol play a role, as does mental health. Somebody might not have a ... diagnosis in terms of schizophrenia or manic depression but are just struggling to deal with redundancy or separation from a partner of many years.

"There are all sorts of pathways."

Mr Holt says relative to overseas, homelessness isn't a huge problem in New Zealand, but the numbers certainly aren't dropping and that's "sad".

Summer at the drop-in centre sees a lull in activity thanks to warmer weather and an increased spirit of generosity from the public.

But numbers swell over winter as rough sleepers get cold and hungry.

Much of the City Mission's work is about intercepting people who, without intervention, will become rough sleepers.

"They've got a mindset, they've got a world view that's informed by their experiences sleeping rough."

Despite beliefs that some homeless people choose to live in the street, the word "choice" is loaded, Mr Holt says.

"It's the same way you might 'choose' to become addicted to alcohol, or gambling, or sex, or the internet. I wouldn't suggest that you chose that, but you made some bad choices.

"In 18 years working in this field, I'd be hard pressed to name six people who ... made an informed choice to be on the streets. And I can't think of anyone who actually planned it."

Attacks on homeless people shake up the homeless community and spur talk of vigilante justice and carrying weapons, he says.

The two recent deaths came at a time when street life was already under discussion.

A bylaw banning beggars considered intimidating or to be causing a nuisance was passed by Auckland City Council in August and will come into effect in May next year.

The Public Safety and Nuisance Bylaw will still allow people to ask for money, food or other items, but will deal with complaints to the council about intimidating or "nuisance" behaviour.

The change, which has been widely criticised, will also apply to window washers and buskers.

APNZ

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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