Desperation drove a homeless family of seven to occupy an empty house in Gisborne last month.
Ashleigh Wawatai, her husband and five kids have been homeless for two years, living with whānau and in a self-catering residential accommodation before making the decision to "squat" in an empty house managed by Crown agency Kāinga Ora.
"I'm stressed, tired and overwhelmed by the sheer shambles of our housing system," Wawatai said.
The family posted about their plight on Facebook in mid-November and received several empathetic responses, along with addresses of unoccupied houses in Gisborne.
"We were terrified doing this but my desperation surpassed my fear," she said.
Housing advocate Tuta Ngarimu was told of the family's situation and their back story.
"I think telling their story is a great way to highlight whānau who have been in a similar condition — those who have been sitting in emergency accommodation for nearly two years now — in motels with their kids."
It showed the extreme measures people were taking to find a home, "especially when they are feeling unheard", he said.
And while the Government was in the process of building accommodation to arrest the housing crisis situation, the process was taking far too long and needed to be dealt with even more urgently.
"That's why a lot of families are feeling left out, and worse still, they are having to live through this pandemic as well."
The Wawatai family's situation started during the end of the first lockdown last year.
They shifted out of a house to live at Wawatai's parents to help them out financially. They were in what Wawatai described as "a leaky garage".
From there they moved in with Wawatai's sister until the stress of having 20 occupants in a three-bedroom house became too much.
From there, the family constantly shifted around, including brief stays with whānau, but when "things got overcrowded" they had to move out yet again.
After Work and Income were unable to provide them with accommodation, Wawatai's brother advised her to move into Forrester House — a self-catering accommodation.
Wawatai said it was "gross".
"My kids have never been sick but after we moved into the house they got this chesty cough every night," she said.
The place was also infested with rats, mould and cockroaches, she said.
They were shocked when informed there were registered paedophiles staying on the premises.
"I really couldn't have imagined how wrong it is for children to be there until my own were there."
Forrester House is not "typically" used as an emergency housing supplier by the Ministry of Social Development.
When contacted by The Gisborne Herald, Forrester House on-site manager Kylie Wilson said the family should have notified her about their problems.
"Also to my knowledge I'm not aware of any registered paedophiles living in the house. Maybe she is saying this to get emergency housing faster, I'm not sure."
Wawatai said her family did notify the management of their concerns but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
'Well over 600 on the register'
Tairawhiti Beneficiary Advocacy Trust co-ordinator Shelley King said the region had got to a point where its emergency accommodation and transitional housing were at full capacity.
"I know that there are well over 600 on the social housing register and these numbers are whole families, not just one person.
"We have got a lot of people in overcrowded and unsafe situations ... there are a whole lot of people also living in their streets, cars, tents ... all over the place," she said.
King said people contacted them every week looking for accommodation.
The trust had contacted MSD, Kāinga Ora and other housing authorities to try to find housing for people who had nothing.
"There is a five-year plan for houses to be built but that doesn't help now."
She had written to ministers on behalf of community groups highlighting aspects about the lack of immediate emergency and transitional housing.
MSD East Coast regional commissioner Karen Bartlett said the demand for emergency housing was high and it was usually difficult to find accommodation for larger whānau such as Wawatai's.
Bartlett said the family approached them on November 19 about emergency housing from November 29 after they decided to leave Forrester House due to safety concerns.
However, Wawatai said it was Waikirikiri School, which her children attend, not the family who notified MSD of their situation and, on advice from MSD, they moved out.
"We managed to find this whānau a place to stay in Tokomaru Bay (Tokomaru Bay Holiday Park) which we booked for them on November 22 and discussed with them beforehand that this accommodation provider charges a small fee to use the communal laundry facilities," Bartlett said.
Wawatai said she was opposed to the idea of shifting to a cabin at the holiday park as it was quite a distance from her husband's work.
Having no other option, her family decided to drive up to the park and inspect the cabin.
They were shocked when they discovered that on top of paying a quarter of their income on accommodation, the family of seven would have to pay for their showers by the minute.
Bartlett said MSD was surprised by that.
"We have asked camping ground management what the situation is regarding paying to use the shower. They have yet to respond."
The Gisborne Herald was unable to reach holiday park management for comment.
'Plan in place' for unoccupied properties
The Wawatai family remain in the Kāinga Ora-managed house.
Kāinga Ora manages 1260 public homes in Tairāwhiti. As of June this year, 559 applicants were on the public housing register.
East North Island, Kāinga Ora - Homes and Communities regional director Naomi Whitewood said they understood the desperation of whānau who were homeless or had spent extended periods in emergency housing.
"Very few" vacant public homes were available in Gisborne and none were available for whānau to move into at the moment.
For the few homes not occupied, a plan was in place, she said. This may be because a home is due to be upgraded.
"This is what my team are working hard every day to address ... Kāinga Ora housing support managers met with the [Wawatai] whānau this week, and have agreed an immediate and then longer-term solution to their housing needs."
Tairāwhiti has been identified as one of eight priority areas in the New Zealand Public Housing Plan.
"We are working hard alongside our partners to deliver the plan's aim of around 170 homes in Tairāwhiti for public housing by 2024," Whitewood said.
Bartlett said MSD was pleased to hear Kāinga Ora and the whānau were resolving the housing issue.
"We understand emergency accommodation is not always an ideal solution but it is extremely important to us that people are not left to sleep rough, or in cars, particularly large whānau with tamariki."
The Wawatai family are now hoping to eventually get a place they can call a true home.
"I have watched my friends, family and a lot of locals succumb to the housing crisis, most of them having been born and raised here like me," Wawatai said.
"I was born here, my parent and grandparents and their grandparents were born here. This is my home. Everything I have known is here."