- Date published:
11:52 am, November 4th, 2017 - 23 comments
Categories: class war, housing, infrastructure, poverty, quality of life, Social issues, tenants' rights - Tags: discrimination, homelessness, housing
My New Zealand used to be one of innocent pride, where we helped each other out and we gave a damn about others. Now I am disillusioned and angry. I feel disgust and anger that we have allowed poverty and homelessness to occur in our communities. I am disgusted and angry that our Government (no matter which political persuasion) has been allowed to undermine our safety net to the point that there is no safety net for some of our most vulnerable citizens. And I am angry that instead of facing this problem, we have allowed a small portion of our society to promote a discourse of blame and hate. It is time that we take back our communities and work together to ensure our most vulnerable citizens are shown the kindness, care and support that they need. We can no longer turn a blind eye, and we can no longer sit back and pretend this is not our problem.
Using the official definition of homelessness there were over 41,000 homeless people (pdf) in New Zealand back in 2013. I meet homeless people every single day and I want to highlight some underlying factors to help explain how difficult it is being homeless in New Zealand.
The people I meet are homeless for a variety of reasons. Some of the typical scenarios include illness impacting on people’s ability to work resulting rent arrears and eviction. Some are women escaping violence. Some have experienced a breakdown in other relationships, or are responding to changing family situations. By the time I get to meet these families there’s usually a lot has already gone on for them. Some having amassed debt (due to poverty related factors as well as commonly not receiving proper benefit entitlements) and some, but not all, have poor tenancy records. Once this happens these people, under the current system, don’t really stand a chance.
I have noticed that more and more rental properties are being managed by agencies; agencies who in my opinion, find it easier to say no to homeless mothers and children begging for a roof over their heads. Discrimination is rife, with some sharing stories of landlords commenting on their family size, the gender of their children, their brown faces, their tattoos, their work status (or lack thereof)…. The truth of the matter is that landlords can afford to be fussy. They can afford to deny decent people and their children the chance of a home because there’s plenty of potential tenants (who are much harder to stereotype) banging on their doors. In part, this discrimination is a direct result of the negative discourse about beneficiaries that both Government and media have propagated over the last 25 years or so. The impact of poverty on people’s credit and tenancy records is also the manifestation of over thirty years of miserly and punitive welfare policy. Essentially we are now visibly reaping what was sown from the early 1990’s. Stereotypical and discriminatory thinking even affects some in the supposed caring professions. I often have to challenge these beliefs among my peers and colleagues, and frankly it is tiresome and frustrating that some in the ‘helping’ professions are complicit in propagating such a negative discourse.
Homelessness disrupts children’s lives considerably. It can mean several changes of school; disrupted education and social relationships; not having their own space; having stressed parent/s who have no energy; not having friends home to play and being embarrassed in front of their friends, and it often means losing their worldly possessions and having no toys. Sometimes the end result is unnecessary stress and anxiety and behavioural problems that are then judged and treated harshly.
For their parents, homelessness also causes high levels of stress, depression and a sense of hopelessness about the future. It means house hunting is a full-time job. It means having to tell stranger after stranger why they are in the situation they’re in – it means being judged and then being knocked back time and time again. Homelessness prevents these families having a sense of belonging in their communities. Homelessness can mean having to live in situations and rely on people who may use and abuse them. These families are vulnerable and often see no light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.
With things so difficult for the homeless on the private rental market, one would think that these families would easily access state housing. Unfortunately this is not the case for the people I meet. It seems the previous Government didn’t want to spend money on empty houses. Let’s hope the new Government will step up. Internet searches bring up multiple articles about Government selling supposed surplus state houses – even as recently as a month ago. There are also multiple accounts of empty state houses despite desperate families needing homes. The families I work with just want a house. They’ll take anything. Anywhere. As long as they have a roof over their heads. Of course from a practical point of view, this level of desperation is likely to cause problems later on, as families find themselves having to pay small fortunes on buses or travel trying to get their children to schools – money that will likely come from already inadequate food budgets or from money earmarked for rent These type of situations are often judged harshly by WINZ case managers, who will suggest unreasonable solutions, that will have further negative impacts on these families.
Homelessness has many faces. It is not just the stereotypical older male alcoholic sleeping on park benches in his unkempt clothes or the crazy bag lady carting her worldly possessions around. Those stereotypical images lay blame. Those images mean we don’t have to care because it’s “just the way it is”, or it’s their fault – it’s nothing to do with us.