I was part way through the sketch when it struck me.

Four-year-old Chardonnay Daniels had handed me a scribble pad and pen and requested a picture during a break in a conversation my colleague and I were having with her parents at a city motel.

"What do you want me to draw?" I asked.

"A house," she replied.


It struck me that it had been a long time since Chardonnay had known the comforts of home. A blue Mitsubishi station wagon had been her home address for six weeks.

We were visiting the family to discuss how they came to be among a growing number of people falling into homelessness.

I contemplated the family's situation before Chardonnay gave me a smile, a quizzical look and urged me to finish the drawing.

Thanks to financial donations from the community, almost two weeks ago the family were able to move into the motel. It is their home - for now.

On the way back to the office, my colleague, Annemarie Quill, and I discussed their story and the issues arising from it.

The family moved to the Bay from Whangarei in search of a better life. They had heard about job opportunities here. But they didn't know about the severe rental shortage - resulting in them spending weeks living in their car, while trying to find a proper home.

There are fair and obvious questions: Why had they not found a home before they moved here? Why did they not simply go back to Whangarei?

Chardonnay's parents told us they had moved to escape a "negative environment" and did not want to go back.

They had assumed the rental market would be similar to their hometown and were shocked by both the price and the shortage of rentals in the Bay.

They ended up homeless.

The harder question here is whether we, as a community, are comfortable with the fact Chardonnay and other children like her are having to live in cars, garages, tents, or in overcrowded conditions because they cannot find a home and there is a lack of emergency housing.

The Bay of Plenty Times today launches a week-long special series investigating the issue of Tauranga's hidden homeless. These are people with families who simply cannot get into a rental and find themselves in cars, garages or crammed into homes with family or friends.

Roger Taylor, chief executive of the Western Bay Primary Health Organisation, describes the homeless situation as "diabolical".

"What happened to the Kiwi psyche that we allow this?" he asks in today's coverage.

"To what degree are we not showing an interest in the children of this bloody country? People can distance themselves and say 'oh they are druggies, oh they make poor life choices'. Yes, there may be one or two of those cases, but that is not a fair characterisation of these homeless families at all. Where is the level of disgust that as a country we have allowed this to emerge?"

His questions are sobering. It's easy if you own your own home, have a job, and some material wealth to view those who do not as somehow less motivated, less ambitious and, ultimately, less deserving than those who do. It is easy to write them off and say it is not our problem.

But this view does not acknowledge the fact that we don't all get the same start in life, have the same support or enjoy the same opportunities.

Some people simply fall on hard times.

It's true that many who find themselves in these situations have made mistakes in the past - but who hasn't?

And should the consequences of those mistakes result in their family being forced into homelessness?

I don't believe that in a fair society this should be so. But I do believe that we all have a social and moral obligation to help fix the problem, which left unchecked has the potential to mushroom. Is that the kind of city we want in the future?

The good news is that something is being done to address the problem in the Western Bay. Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services director Tommy Wilson yesterday launched the Whare 4 Whanau project in which struggling families are to be housed in a central city building offered by the Tauranga Moana Maori Trust.

Mr Wilson says it will be an oasis for up to three families at a time who had been living in cars, caravans and sheds.

It's a great first step but more needs to be done at a local and national level.

The Government last month announced about 60 emergency housing places could be made available in the Bay of Plenty as part of $41 million of new funding announced but given the scale of the problem that is emerging in this city it is clear to me that more investment is needed.

This investment is needed now, not some time in the future.

Ignoring, or minimising, this problem is no longer an option.