The scarcity of mental health facilities, huge increases in house prices, and a lack of infrastructure spending is taking the shine off living in provincial New Zealand.
The Salvation Army's fourth State of Our Communities Report focused on Invercargill, Carterton and Tokoroa; three very different locations whose residents are facing similar challenges.
Using public data and interviews with 580 residents across the three centres, the report illustrates the challenges and aspirations of those living there.
Rising house prices have forced many first homeowners out of major cities into smaller centres.
While cheaper house prices have beckoned, the promises of capital gains have also appealed to investors, pushing house prices up and locals out of the market.
Rents have risen accordingly, and for these three communities, stable, affordable rentals are becoming harder to find.
In Carterton, the median house price has risen by 141 per cent in five years, from $280,980 in 2016 to $677,162 in 2021.
In Tokoroa, locals spoke of homes that are cold, damp, and run down, with landlords unwilling to spend money upgrading them.
Salvation Army social policy and Parliamentary unit analyst Ana Ika, author of the State of our Communities August 2021 report, said seniors and youth were bearing the brunt of a lack of spending on educational facilities and healthcare in small towns.
"We have an ever-growing senior community with many struggling to get by," she said.
"A lot of young people don't have a lot to do. They are in schools that are often run down and doing their best with limited resources.
"Once they leave school, there are a lack of work opportunities in smaller towns. Youth just don't see their town as giving them a future."
Ika said a major cry from locals from the three towns was for greater investment, help and access to mental health and healthcare services.
People spoke of increasing levels of depression, stress, and anxiety, but inadequate mental health services to address these concerns. Increasing drug use in the communities was seen as an escape from hardship.
One respondent in Invercargill said the situation was very concerning.
"Our mental health system is broken. It's a sad day when our young people are so sad that they are attempting and taking their lives."
However, all three towns share something very important – resilience. When asked what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would see in Tokoroa, one correspondent summed it up like this:
"One day wouldn't be enough to see the real Tokoroa, she'd see the rotten buildings and homes…families broken by drugs, alcohol and gambling…beggars in the main street…. she wouldn't have time to see the smiles that break through all that, the inner strength we have, to overcome all these hurdles."
Ika said challenges facing small towns in New Zealand needed innovative and creative solutions often already known by locals.
"But these small communities can't do it alone. Central government, local government and local communities all hold a piece of the puzzle. Overcoming these challenges requires collaboration."