Northlanders struggling to get into warm dry homes are resorting to living in cars, tents and shacks. Reporter Jenny Ling investigates what's being done to address the issue and how it impacts on health and wellbeing.
Massively prioritising and upscaling public housing and re-zoning land blocks close to town centres are urgently needed measures to address Northland's housing deprivation issue.
That's according to housing and health advocates and officials spoken to for today's Northern Advocate Hidden Homeless series, who all agree the situation is unacceptable.
But factors causing it are not straightforward.
A huge demand for rental accommodation, rental hikes, a lack of public and emergency housing, bureaucracy, and complex social issues like addictions, mental illness and poverty are all in the mix.
Kerikeri doctor Simon Bristow said homelessness is a "huge problem" in the north.
"We're not necessarily talking about people sleeping on the street, it's people sleeping in cars, huts and caravans - things not normally classified in OECD countries as a home.
"A house should have running water, it should be ventilated and warm and dry. That's the basics of what anyone needs."
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson - who was recently appointed Associate Housing Minister with a focus on homelessness - said she is "well aware" of the issue.
Davidson grew up in the Hokianga, attended Opononi Area School and knows family and friends in this situation.
"Housing has remained a crisis issue in the north forever but I know it's getting worse," she said.
"It's not acceptable.
"The north are my people – heaps of my family and friends are in this situation."
The Government has identified Northland as one of six "hot spots" of high demand for poor housing along with Auckland, Rotorua, Hamilton, Hastings and Wellington.
The region also has the highest rates of severe housing deprivation in the country, according to an independent report by University of Otago researchers.
Warm, safe housing is a basic human right.
It's written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in multiple international human rights treaties that New Zealand has ratified.
It's a binding legal obligation.
Yet the problem is getting worse.
Earlier this year United Nations expert Leilani Farha labelled New Zealand's housing situation a "human rights crisis of significant proportions".
The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing made the following comment at the end of her 10-day visit here.
"When one in every hundred people is homeless, half of whom are under 25 years; when thousands are living in vehicles or housed in motels provided by the State; when houses are in such disrepair that they cause otherwise preventable illness and disease; and when middle-income earners are finding it difficult to afford an accessible and decent home, the result is not just a housing crisis, it is a human rights crisis of significant proportions."
Davidson said there are many reasons for the country's growing homelessness.
Previous governments have allowed housing to be treated as a commodity, which pushes up house prices along with the price of rentals, she said.
She believes a capital gains tax should be applied to property investment, excluding family homes.
"It's pushed housing prices up for everyone else and has impacted those in the lowest income bracket and who need the most wraparound support.
"We've sold off public housing, and haven't replaced it at the rate we should have. There is a lack of supply and a lot of people lining up for housing.
"We need emergency housing, and don't have enough of that right now, that's why we're using motels, which are dehumanising.
"We haven't taxed housing and land; we've taxed earners and not owners."
The solutions, Davidson said, are about "massively prioritising and upscaling public housing".
"We also have to increase our provision for community housing.
"There needs to be more wraparound support and resourcing for tangata whenua, and kaupapa Māori-led provision, especially in the north because they are people that know the community."
Far North District councillor Kelly Stratford agreed the homeless problem in Northland isn't acceptable.
There is "huge demand" for rental accommodation, she said.
Stratford comes across many people in need of housing in her role as a Northland representative for the New Zealand School Trustees Association.
"We've got people living in their cars or in tents who've been on the waiting list for a house for ages, and they just get used to it.
"Or they know someone who is worse off than them.
"There's so much demand for addressing social needs ... central government know there are processes in the way of helping where help is needed.
"They need to move swiftly to get the money where it's needed."
Stratford said one solution is to "unlock the potential of land".
"At the moment we have land blocks close to town in Kerikeri, Kawakawa, Kaikohe zoned rural production, so people can't subdivide."
There are currently 2162 public houses in the Northland and 166 transitional housing places, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
As of June 30, there were 716 people on the waiting list including 419 in Whangārei, 247 in the Far North and 50 in Kaipara.
A HUD spokeswoman said the ministry is working to increase the supply of public housing.
In Northland, 180 extra state houses are set to be built by 2022. So far 80 have been delivered.
Ngāti Hine Health Trust chief executive Geoff Milner said Kāinga Ora (formerly Housing New Zealand) has done little about increasing supply in Northland.
A few trusts have built social housing units around the region, he said, but it's "pathetic in terms of a Northland response to supply".
"We're talking about 6, 8, 14, 20 social houses give or take, being built in the whole of Northland. So the crisis continues to accelerate.
"Supply in the north for middle- and low-income families has been non-existent. There's been no support of any significance for many years."
Milner said many people from the north are returning home due to Covid-19.
And while homelessness impacts everyone, it's predominantly Māori, Milner said.
"Māori tend to be the people who come home to their kāinga and that's what we're seeing.
"The solution lies in the Government partnering up with Māori providers to help build social housing."
The HUD spokeswoman said it is also working on a "rapid rehousing trial".
This will be targeted to individuals and whānau with low to medium complexity of support needs for up to 12 months and is expected to be launched soon, she said.
"The ministry is investing in Housing First to address chronic homelessness in the region.
"The ministry has recently supported two providers in Te Tai Tokerau to deliver initiatives that address homelessness in the area exacerbated by the impacts of Covid-19.
"The Maihi Partnership programme also continues working proactively with Māori groups to realise the housing aspirations of whānau Māori ... at risk of homelessness."
How homelessness impacts on health
A recent Government Cabinet paper, the Aotearoa New Zealand Homeless Action Plan, cites an "urgent need to act as too many New Zealanders are currently experiencing homelessness".
"Becoming homeless can be a devastating experience and worsen physical health, mental health and addictions," the paper said.
"For children and young people homelessness can be especially harmful and have longer-term impacts on wellbeing."
Kerikeri GP Simon Bristow said people experiencing long-term homelessness will likely suffer sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and malnutrition, and have declining personal hygiene.
This can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease or gout.
"There's a huge amount of documentation that shows an increased risk of heart disease, and most diseases you can think of, without good restorative sleep," Dr Bristow said.
"People need good restorative sleep for the body to function well.
"With nutrition, it's just about everything you can think of from neuro-degenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancers and other long-term chronic diseases which are generally low-incidence in people with good nutrition."
Living rough takes its toll mentally, too.
Northland District Health Board psychology professional leader Odette Miller said homeless people are more likely to have significant mental health and substance abuse issues, a level of cognitive impairment and have experienced traumatic events.
"People who are homeless are less likely to have their physical, social and health needs met and are at a higher risk of interpersonal violence," Dr Miller said.
"This impacts on all aspects of their psychological wellbeing."
Read the series
Day one: Our Hidden Homeless: Families living in cars and tents; couch-surfing grandmas
Day two: Eric Monk finally has a place to call home
Day three: Northland's elderly living in Third World conditions