You'd be surprised just how hard it is to find a family willing to let a Herald writer snoop around their home and ask all sorts of intrusive questions about their substandard living conditions.
I'm being ironic, of course, although in the context, an attempt at any kind of humour is borderline tasteless. Home is a place we are supposed to feel safe and unintruded on. The very phrase "at home", as in "he is at home in the water", is a metonym for comfort and carefree ease. But feelings of shame and inadequacy must make it hard to admit strangers, particularly ones with notebooks, into your cold, damp and mouldy home.
In half a day of ringing around social-service agencies in the private and charitable sectors last Friday, I had no shortage of offers to find a family who could put a face on the crisis of sub-standard housing. But persuading a family to come forward was another matter. And that's not surprising at all.
My search was driven by my feelings of sadness and anger at the release last week of a coroner's finding that the death of South Auckland toddler Emma-Lita Bourne from bronchopneumonia was attributable in part to the poor condition of the family's cold, sunless, uncarpeted state house.
They had a heater, but they were scared to turn it on because they couldn't afford the power.
Finance Minister Bill English, interviewed on Morning Report on Friday, said the case showed that "we have some way to go yet to be as responsive as we should be", an answer that subtly and cleverly tried to characterise Emma-Lita's death as an isolated and specific failure.
But the electorate secretaries of two MPs in South Auckland told me that virtually all of the people who come into their offices are inadequately housed - if they are housed at all. One family showed up in a minivan, Manukau East MP Jenny Salesa said; it is their home.
Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the Housing and Health Research programme at Otago University, says 40,000 child hospital admissions each year are for respiratory conditions to which poor housing has contributed.
Census figures show that in one household in 10, no form of heating is ever in use.
In the end, I was given the number of a Housing NZ tenant in Cannons Creek in Porirua who was willing to talk. She emailed me a gallery of photos from which the cold seemed to radiate when I brought them up on my computer screen: of windows and doors that fitted so ill it was hard to believe they were closed; of thin, cheap carpet lifting so that the particle-board flooring could be plainly seen; of mould spore creeping across painted surfaces.
The woman, who didn't want her name used, has two boys, aged 9 months and 12 years. She works 30 hours a week and gets by, with state assistance, on about $500. She just got a power bill for $280 which she ran up because she keeps a heater running in the boys' room at night: one is asthmatic, the other is recovering from bronchiolitis and has a persistent cough. She tells me she has "no idea" how she's going to pay the power bill.
"I feel very sad for [Emma-Lita Bourne's mother]," she says, "but I worry the same thing is going to happen to one of my kids. And I have friends who are worse off than me."
Beside all this, the fact that the woman's oven has worked only on full for the four years she's been in the house seems like a mild inconvenience. An electrician was sent a couple of years ago, but she wasn't home, so Housing NZ cancelled the job. She's requested again repeatedly without response.
Prime Minister John Key told his post-Cabinet news conference on Monday that the Government had insulated "an enormous number" of homes. "The question is do we need to do more and the answer is yes ... but how that works and who pays for [it] is a different issue."
As winter tightens its grip, the Porirua solo mum might be forgiven for wondering whether the dividend Housing New Zealand pays the Government - around half a billion dollars in the past five years - could help alleviate conditions that belong in another century and another hemisphere.
You have to ask what we've come to when there's an acceptable level of poverty-induced child mortality. In New Zealand.
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