No place like home
More than 30,000 New Zealanders lack a proper home, and live instead in cars, caravan parks, night shelters, boarding houses or on the street. It’s one of the most striking symptoms of a country in which people lead increasingly precarious lives.
For several months last year, Daniel Rangiwhetu and his partner Temperance were living in a tent in Wellington’s town belt. Rangiwhetu had lost his job as a gardening contractor, and because of difficulties with Work and Income, Housing New Zealand and other agencies, hadn’t been able to get a benefit straight away. He and Temperance had been living precariously for a long time before that, shifting from one unstable lodging to another and winding up at a backpackers by the Wellington railway station. Once they couldn’t pay the rent there, the only option was to sleep rough.
For those months, he and Temperance pitched their tent just behind the children’s playground that sits on the city side of the Mt Victoria tunnel, next to a path that winds up into the town belt. When I first met Rangiwhetu beside this tent back in November last year, he was putting on a brave face. “It has been good living out here,” he said, “because people come and say hello, and give us food and drop in hot drinks. We have had no hassles from the public. People think it’s really funny, us living here. Even the walkers who go past, they ask if we are okay. We know their dogs now, so we can pat them.”
But after a while, Rangiwhetu let show his anger and frustration. “It really does hurt, what’s happening. I’m hurt, I’m angry. I’m angry every day, because I can’t do anything.” Exacerbating the situation was his medical condition: he was born without functioning bowels, so has a colostomy bag. To make matters worse, the bag didn’t always work properly, so faecal matter got extruded around the join between the bag and the tube in his stomach. As a result of other internal issues, Rangiwhetu was also “leaking out the back passage”, as he put it. He estimated he had endured 298 procedures in his life, and was losing faith in the medical system. “I have started giving up going to doctors’ appointments. I’m sick of the different stories, sick of people saying, you are fixed, and not being fixed.”
If changing a colostomy bag is challenging in regular circumstances, think about what it’s like trying to do it in a tent. “I get up to go to the toilet, and it just comes pouring out. I go to the [public toilets], sit down there and wash myself using the tap. It’s hard to do my washing. I’ve got nowhere to do it. I’ve got nowhere to wash, except this. All my clothes are soiled. I need to use a washing machine, a dryer…”
It wasn’t much of a life, living in a tent. Rangiwhetu and his partner didn’t have anywhere to cook, and virtually no money, so they relied on donated pre-cooked food. “Cream doughnuts, chocolate éclairs. We have pretty much had no meat. I have had a lot of things [that] we have given back that we can’t cook.” They weren’t even warm. “It does get cold,” Rangiwhetu said, looking into the tent. “That’s why I wear my clothes all night.”
How can it be that in a land of plenty, a country that generates economic growth of nearly $30,000 per person every year, two people were living, not by choice, in a tent in inner-city Wellington?
The answer is that Rangiwhetu and Temperance are far from alone. In the 2006 Census, there were more than 34,000 people—one for every 120 inhabitants—living in what experts call severe housing deprivation. That definition covers not just those traditionally thought of as homeless—people who are ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets, on park benches and under bridges—but all those whose housing is unstable or seriously inadequate. These are the people sometimes described as the ‘hidden homeless’, living in boarding houses and backpackers, in caravans and holiday parks, in lean-tos and garages, in their cars, in friends’ flats, or in overcrowded housing with several families crammed into one dwelling. Dr Kate Amore, who led a 2013 Otago University study setting out the extent of this hidden homelessness, says the people affected are among society’s most vulnerable—and least visible. “Many of these people are excluded from poverty and unemployment statistics, and are not on social housing waiting lists. They are extremely disadvantaged.”
Amore’s research shows these people are predominantly children and young adults, from ethnic minorities, and either in a sole-parent family or living by themselves. They often move frequently, are unemployed, have an unskilled job or are poorly educated. Half of them are working or studying, or both. Of the people in severe housing deprivation, nearly two-thirds are staying with others in severely crowded housing. One-fifth are living in commercial accommodation, such as boarding houses or camping grounds, or marae; and one in six—around 5000 people—are on the street or in improvised or mobile dwellings. A small number are in emergency accommodation such as night shelters or women’s refuges. Nearly half the population—44 per cent—are in Auckland.
While there are no reliable long-term statistics on housing deprivation, it has always been around in some form: in the 1950s, Wellington was described as having a “particularly acute” shortage of housing, while the 1980s saw a major report identifying 20,000 households as having a serious housing need. The issue has become increasingly serious in recent years. The 34,000 people in the 2006 Census represented a nine per cent increase on the 2001 level, and the 2013 Census—currently being analysed—is expected to show a further rise. When it comes to those who are sleeping on the streets, Stephanie McIntyre of DCM (formerly the Downtown Community Ministry), which works with Wellington’s vulnerable population, says the number of rough sleepers the agency sees has doubled in the decade she’s been director.
Homelessness is not an orphan, but has many parents, experts say.
At the highest level, it is born out of two major trends: a sharp increase in poverty, precariousness and vulnerability during the past three decades, and, with perverse timing, a large reduction in the availability of secure and affordable housing over the same period.
On the first point, in the past 30 years, the number of people living in poverty—defined, using the internationally standard measure, as having less than 60 per cent of the income of the average household—has doubled. It went from 9 per cent of the population (280,000 people) in 1984 to 18 per cent (790,000 people) in 2013. In that time, state benefits were cut sharply. Salary increases, meanwhile, have failed to keep pace with economic growth since the early 1990s.
A cultural shift towards greater individualism has left many people more isolated, argues Shiloh Groot, an Auckland University academic who acts as the tangata whenua co-chair of the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness. “The problem with a lot of people’s apathy towards homelessness is that we tend not to see ourselves as a community. We see ourselves as individuals, in enclaves…detached from our fellow human beings.”
Life is also much more precarious, more prone to sudden, disturbing changes, than it was in the pre-1980s era of full employment and jobs for life. The influential 2011 work The Precariat, by British economist Guy Standing, argues that the defining feature of modern work is its unstable, shifting nature, seen most obviously in the casual, short-term, jobs with no minimum hours that make up much of the modern economy. In New Zealand, at least a third and possibly as much as half of the workforce are in some kind of precarious work, according to estimates by the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). “This is the insecurity of not having definite hours of work, of not knowing if you are an employee or a contracted worker, of having no protection against sudden redundancy,” says CTU president Helen Kelly.
Just as the number of people who might need affordable or social housing has increased, so has the supply of that housing fallen sharply. Housing New Zealand provides around 69,000 state houses, the same number it had in 1991—but the number of households has risen by nearly a third since then. This leaves social housing numbers around 20,000 short of where they would need to be to have kept pace with population growth, let alone the increased need generated by poverty and instability. And it’s not as if the private housing market has picked up the slack by providing consistently cheap homes. Between 1979 and 2013, the average house price went from being twice the typical household’s annual disposable income to five times as much, according to Reserve Bank data. Nor is it just buying a house that has become difficult. By internationally accepted measures, no one should be spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs, notably rent, otherwise there isn’t enough left for other expenses. But the number of people in that situation has risen from 11 per cent of the population in the 1980s to 27 per cent today.
Much of New Zealand’s housing is not only expensive but also substandard, argues Otago University public health professor Philippa Howden-Chapman: “Many of our buildings are of poor quality—they often leak, and are damp and cold.” This forces many households to shift frequently in search of better accommodation, and helps give New Zealand a residential mobility rate twice that of a country like Britain—not, Howden-Chapman says, a record New Zealand wants to have, given the disruption it causes to adult lives and children’s schooling.
All this helps create a highly unstable world for many people living in the poorer half of the income spectrum. Phil Twyford, the Labour Party’s spokesman on housing, says that instability is a reality for many in his West Auckland electorate of Te Atatu. “When you combine precarious housing with precarious work, it’s a very uncertain and unstable world you are creating for people.”
Down south, 21-year-old Sam Linton is a prime example. Having been “ripped off”, he says, by his past three employers, all in Christchurch’s booming building sector, he is without regular work and is living with his mother. “My girlfriend kicked me out of the house, and I’m basically homeless,” he says. On the benefit, “you end up with $30 a week after bills, and that doesn’t leave me any money for housing. My mum has been nice and let me move back in, but… not forever.”
Linton is looking to re-train in the security industry, but meanwhile is racking up loans to cover things such as car costs, which—if he doesn’t get a pay-out from a former employer he’s taking to the Employment Court—could put him “in the worst position of my life” and even force him into bankruptcy. Part of the problem is that, on the wages he received working as a builder, he couldn’t save up any financial buffer. “You can’t,” he says. “There’s no rainy-day jar or nothing. It’s impossible.”
In 2012, as part of research for a book on income inequality, I lived in a boarding house—a private home with large numbers of individual renters—for three weeks. The room, in a house in central Wellington, was small, cold, damp (it leaked when it rained), covered in mould spores, and rather dirty. The house had another 13 people in it, but only one working shower (and that with a cracked concrete floor), no washing machine and no fridge, so that people either had to buy their own fridge or let their food moulder in their rooms. Rent was paid in cash, weekly, with no paperwork, bond or tenancy agreement. And for the privilege of living in this charming establishment, I was being charged $150 a week.
The house’s other inhabitants were mostly older men, many with varying degrees of mental illness or alcoholism. One of them, whom I knew only as Bob, had been a construction worker in the 1980s, helping put up buildings like Wellington’s State Insurance Tower, but lost his job during an economic downturn and ended up also losing his connections to friends, family and mainstream life. His room leaked even more badly than mine—the water “just comes hosing through”, he explained in a strong Scottish accent. When I asked him why he didn’t find somewhere else to live, he looked straight at me and said: “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
The 12 men and one woman in this house were typical of those living in hidden homelessness: technically housed, but not in a place that met minimum standards of decency or gave them any sort of security; in some cases, boarding-house tenants can be evicted with no notice whatsoever. Most of the house’s occupants had histories that fitted the typical pathways into homelessness. In a 2005 report entitled Slipping through the Cracks, Otago University researchers identified three key routes: family situation (which they labelled ‘driven’), a discrete event (‘dropped’), and natural progression (‘drawn’). Analysing interviews with 30 people experiencing homelessness, the researchers found that the majority of them, 19, fitted the ‘driven’ pathway. This began with events such as parents separating, other family instability, domestic violence, or parents becoming addicted to alcohol or other drugs. This then often led into foster care, time spent in institutions such as boys’ homes or borstals, alcohol and drug use, unemployment, crime and prison.
Nine of the interviewees fitted the ‘dropped’ scenario, in which a single discrete event suddenly precipitated homelessness. This included people who had unexpectedly been made unemployed or had traumatic relationship breakdowns, a parental death, or an acute mental health episode. Another three interviewees were in the ‘drawn’ pathway, not having had an unstable family background or experienced a sudden shock, but having developed behavioural problems from an early age, started hanging out on streets, and lost contact with their family. (Some people’s stories fitted more than one pathway.)
Mike Leon, who runs Wellington’s night shelter, has seen all these kinds of stories. The shelter has a dormitory downstairs with 23 emergency beds, which are filled on a nightly basis, and 22 hostel-style rooms upstairs, where men (the shelter is male-only) can stay for up to six months as they try to find permanent accommodation. In December last year, Leon had 29 men arriving at the shelter needing somewhere to stay, a level of demand that keeps it full to the brim. “The volume of new people accessing our services continues to remain at high levels,” he says.
On their entry forms for the night shelter, the 29 men listed their previous accommodation, creating a roll call of all the different kinds of substandard housing: sleeping rough, staying with friends, hostels, boarding houses, backpackers, camping grounds, hospitals, the City Mission Christchurch, and, most poignantly, “a makeshift dwelling”. The reasons for becoming homeless are equally varied: relationship breakdown, struggling with bills, overcrowding, family breakdown, being in trouble with the police, receiving threats of violence, being “asked to leave”, being released from prison, and, quite simply, having “nowhere to stay”. Leon says many of the men fit the ‘dropped’ scenario. “Pathways into homelessness are often sort of like shocks, usually in rapid steps of time. People lose their job, and their credit cards and bills are maxed out. Or their partner leaves, and they can’t afford rent and bills… It’s often that relationship or family breakdown; those tend to be the largest drivers.”
Those sudden shocks have a greater effect on people whose lives are already precarious, with little margin for error. Anthony Baird currently lives at the night shelter, after spells of insecure work and administrative incompetence left him in poor health. Sitting in a small room next to the night shelter’s entrance on Wellington’s Taranaki Street, he explains how he worked in Christchurch for nine years in the security industry, doing jobs “on every major site in town, except the casino and the airport”. After the Christchurch earthquakes, he decided to leave town, and wound up in Motueka, working in orchards and the Talley’s mussel factory. An accident, in which he slipped and badly damaged a hand, left him off work for several weeks at the peak of the mussel season, so he moved up to Auckland in search of a new job.
“My CV wasn’t set up for it. In Auckland, they want long-term people. And I didn’t know the place, found it difficult to get around. I didn’t find any work for weeks.” He stayed with a cousin for a while, then in his car. “I was living on $20 a week, bread and cheese.” Eventually, his money running low, he tried to make an appointment with Work and Income, but the first slot available was weeks away. “It could have been weeks before I got paid the benefit…I just wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t have much fuel in my car [to drive to job interviews], and Auckland is huge.”
Desperate, Baird left town again, and eventually wound up in Wellington. But by this time, stress and poor diet had combined to bring on a relapse of his chronic fatigue syndrome, which he had been free of for over a decade. Formerly “super fit”, Baird now sleeps about three times a day. “I spend half an hour each day cleaning the tables at the soup kitchen after breakfast, and after that I have to go home to sleep.” Despite this, Work and Income is refusing to pay him the supported living allowance (formerly the invalid’s benefit)—a decision he is appealing. “If I had had Work and Income support and adequate food, I wouldn’t have had the chronic fatigue relapse,” he says. “Now, I will have to deal with this for years.”
Despite all these issues, he is hopeful of finding a place of his own. But Housing New Zealand is proving no more helpful than Work and Income. “I made an appointment [with Housing New Zealand]. That took weeks to get. Then the person went on leave. Then I tried to make another appointment. They said there wasn’t an appointment free for weeks. Then they never got back to me, so I thought, ‘This is a big waste of time.’” Nonetheless, he’s keeping busy. Partway through our interview, he pulls out a tattered volume which proves to be his master’s thesis in physics, which he earned from Canterbury University in 2003 for analysing data on “neutrinos from black holes outside our galaxy” gathered from the Antarctic ice. Determined not to let this brainpower go to waste, Baird has set himself the task of devising a new economic and political system that will guarantee minimum standards of living while also being efficient and competitive. “I just looked at the [current] system and thought, ‘The system isn’t working.’”
In the DCM kitchen-cum-staffroom, Stephanie McIntyre sits forward on her chair, contemplating a question about homelessness. On the other side of the wall is DCM’s entrance foyer, where some of Wellington’s most vulnerable people arrive looking for help. Their lives, and especially their living situations, can be extremely precarious, she says. “Homelessness is such a complex phenomenon. Year on year, I become more aware of how complex it is.” In Wellington, “only a handful of people”—between 20 and 50—are rough sleeping consistently. But most of those DCM sees at its Lukes Lane headquarters near the bars and clubs of Courtenay Place are “cycling around, in and out of rough sleeping, the night shelter and dormitory, police cells, accident and emergency…they are moving around a lot.” Family background is the most common cause of homelessness, McIntyre says. “There is a commonality of story around family background, people coming from very traumatic early beginnings…It’s likely that if someone does become homeless, there will have been events in their early life that meant they missed out.”
Many people experiencing homelessness also have mental health issues of some kind. Groot says it’s a “chicken and egg” situation. “Sometimes, yes, there are [pre-existing] mental health issues that haven’t been well supported.” But being homeless can in itself catalyse mental health issues. “Once people are on the street, as time goes by, they are dealing with stigma, they are dealing with deprivation, they are dealing with the horror of it.”
Leo McIntyre, manager of the Atareira Trust, which provides a variety of services for people with mental health issues, says recent welfare changes have shifted many people from the invalid’s benefit onto jobseeker support, requiring them to look for work. That has been “quite difficult for people”, especially those with communication difficulties and limited literacy. Compounding the problems, the Capital and Coast District Health Board has recently reduced funding for the advocates who work on behalf of people with mental health issues. On the housing side, Atareira provides a service called Easy Access Housing, which enables people with mental health issues to quickly find accommodation. But its 20 places around Wellington are constantly oversubscribed, McIntyre says. “We are always full, and there are always more people waiting.”
The result is that people who have been in hospital with mental health issues can often have nowhere adequate to go. Capital and Coast board figures from 2012 show there were 41 hospital discharges to the night shelter in that year. An additional 85 were released to “no fixed abode”, the Dominion Post reported. “It’s still seen as possible that a person could be discharged from a mental health ward back onto the streets,” Stephanie McIntyre says, “and I find that extremely, extremely disturbing. We have not yet been able to agree that being homeless is completely counterproductive to being well. If we can agree that someone is unwell, you have to have appropriate accommodation.” Over at the night shelter, Leon says that, in a couple of cases, “we have had clients who have been fully psychotic for an ongoing period of time, and we have struggled to engage mental health services. It’s becoming more challenging. There are less-effective support services out there, especially for people with mental health issues.”
Many of the homeless, especially those rough sleeping, have alcohol and drug addictions as well as mental health issues—a combination that government services are ill-equipped to deal with. People wanting treatment for mental health issues must first have an assessment, but, Leon says, “they have to be sober for that appointment. But just turning up can be a challenge, let alone being sober. So because those access issues are becoming more difficult, we’re seeing more people falling through the cracks.”
Another well-trodden pathway into homelessness leads directly from the prison gate. Since the 1980s, crime has fallen sharply, but the number of inmates in our jails has more than doubled, rising from 91 per 100,000 people in 1987 to 199 per 100,000 by 2011. As a result, what happens when people move in and out of prison matters a great deal. The reintegration of offenders into the community has become a priority for the Department of Corrections in recent years, and some progress has been made with people serving long sentences. The bigger problems, homelessness experts say, occur for those on short sentences. When someone who has been renting a flat goes to jail, their landlord typically disposes of their belongings, unless they have made other arrangements. That means they often come out of prison unable to get hold of key things, including birth certificates and other important documentation.
Without that documentation, it is impossible to set up a bank account; no bank account means nowhere for Work and Income to pay a benefit into; no benefit generally means no income other than the small Steps to Freedom grant given to people released from prison; and no income means no accommodation. The Department of Corrections is understood to be looking at this problem. (The department did not respond to requests for an interview.) But Steve Flude, the manager of Wellington’s soup kitchen, says former inmates “are still coming out with nothing. I don’t think it’s got any better. There has been a lot of talk about collaborating with the community sector around provision of services, but we haven’t seen any of that happen.”
The complexity of homelessness makes front-line workers reluctant to assign much of the blame to individuals. Groot says there is “a very common assumption” among the public that people’s own vulnerabilities are to blame for their situation, but there is also a “structural” explanation that looks at the wider factors. “We weave both approaches together. We look at these personal vulnerabilities and how it’s exacerbated through structural inequality.” Stephanie McIntyre is even more emphatic. “When you actually spend all your days for a decade with people who again and again and again tell you about violence and sexual abuse they experienced as little children, and how their schooling was interrupted, and the drugs they were exposed to, and so on, it becomes impossible to think that this is a lifestyle choice rather than a consequence of what happened to them in their lives.”
The current government doesn’t have a strategy for tackling homelessness. That isn’t a Labour Party slogan, just a statement of fact: there is no national homelessness strategy. It is no simple matter even to find out which minister is responsible for the issue. The former Department of Building and Housing, which seems a reasonable place to start, is now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, but staff there referred New Zealand Geographic to the Ministry of Social Development. Its staff in turn suggested that Anne Tolley, the Social Development Minister, might be responsible for homelessness. Her staff said that, in fact, the person responsible was Paula Bennett, the Minister for Social Housing.
Bennett did turn out to be the responsible minister—but her staff refused requests for an interview, saying she was “too busy” and that, in any case, the government’s recent announcement on social housing had all the relevant detail. That announcement was principally about transferring the ownership of up to 2000 state houses a year to community providers such as the Salvation Army, a move which—irrespective of its merits—does nothing to address the overall supply of housing or reduce homelessness. The government also promised to extend income-related rents—which allow individuals to pay, for example, a rent set at 25 per cent of their income, rather than the market rate—to another 3000 individuals, but did not give details about how this would be achieved. Ministers also promised $500,000 for emergency accommodation. (In a statement, the ministry said it was still “working through the operational details”.)
Groot says the government “could be doing a lot more. Just having the issue of homelessness in New Zealand recognised would be the most important step. The current government doesn’t recognise that we have a homelessness problem—that’s a massive roadblock.”
Since the government doesn’t have a homelessness strategy, her coalition is trying to develop one. “But it’s difficult, because there is no resource for it, there’s no ability to co-ordinate nationally, because we don’t have that central government leadership.”
Phil Twyford, Labour spokesperson for housing, is predictably derisive of the government’s plans, calling them a “smokescreen” for what he believes will be a move towards a voucher system, in which the most vulnerable would have to compete in the private housing market with middle-class renters and failed first-home buyers. He argues the government is doing nothing to tackle a problem that is reaching “epidemic” proportions. “People routinely turn up at my electorate office (Te Atatū) with nowhere to live. They might literally have tried 50 or 100 different properties and they haven’t been able to get anywhere… They turn up, often with possessions stuffed into their car, saying, ‘What do we do?’” And on the campaign trail, when he goes door-knocking, “there are a number of streets where garages aren’t being used for cars. People are living in them.”
For Twyford, the solution to this problem lies in reaffirming the role of state-built housing. His party’s Kiwibuild policy would see the government constructing 100,000 homes for first-time buyers, significantly increasing supply and lowering the pressure on rents and house prices right around New Zealand. Labour would also spend $5 million on emergency housing, and introduce tough regulations for boarding house owners. But tackling homelessness is, Twyford says, “a generational task. It isn’t something that you can do in a three-year electoral term.” Groot, meanwhile, argues that any solution to homelessness would have to have a specific Māori dimension. “Māori are overrepresented in poverty, and therefore they are overrepresented in homelessness, which is the sharp edge of poverty.” Addressing that, she says, means working closely with iwi and incorporating Māori needs into a national homelessness strategy.
People working on the front line are clear about the need to address the lack of housing of all kinds. “You need different models,” Flude says. That’s partly about increasing the amount of social and affordable housing: according to the Otago University research that Kate Amore and others carried out, it would take 13,000–21,000 new dwellings to house the 34,000-strong homeless population. But for those with the most complex issues, it’s also about providing supported accommodation with health staff on-site. Flude, who came to Wellington after years working in Britain, points to Cambridge City Council (UK) as a useful comparison. Covering a smaller population than Wellington City Council, it has 9000 units of social housing, with thousands more provided by registered social landlords. In contrast, Wellington City Council has just 2300 social housing units, and Housing New Zealand another 1900 in the Wellington area. Cambridge also has large numbers of temporary beds for people with high-priority needs, as well as specialist teenage units, refuges, bail hostels, and wet houses—places where alcoholics can continue to drink while still being housed and receiving help with their addiction. Wellington has few if any of those services; attempts to set up a wet house, for example, have consistently foundered on community opposition.
Part of the reason that Cambridge has much better services, Flude says, is that Britain imposes on local councils a statutory duty to address homelessness, “so the local authority has a legal obligation to provide accommodation for people who are in need”. That in turn drives a much more co-ordinated approach, with the city council providing a single point of entry for people who may be homeless and guiding them to the services and accommodation they need. In Wellington, in contrast, “there are scraps, but no co-ordinated way to get into it. In an ideal world, you would have a central point of entry for all housing. Currently, you have got people who are constantly going through multiple layers of applications and moving between organisations, when there’s no real need for them to move.” Flude would also like to see someone set up an equivalent to Britain’s Emmaus, a set of “intentional communities” in which people who would otherwise be homeless are given shelter but also do work for social enterprises that include furniture recycling and cafes.
Stephanie McIntyre, who like Flude wants to see a much greater range of housing options, argues that with the right types of housing and the right support, even apparently intractable cases can be resolved. “There is this cohort of people who just rough sleep for years and years. And the critical thing is that within that cohort, we know some that are still rough sleeping, [but] we know some that have moved into accommodation and been there for a short time, and others who have been there for a long time. You can move from rough sleeping to stable accommodation. For some, that requires very, very significant long-term support. Sometimes it requires remarkably little.”
Often, people who are sleeping rough may insist that that is what they want, and tell members of the public that they choose to be on the streets. But, McIntyre says, “I wouldn’t expect to hear someone confiding in me [their true feelings] or sharing the whole story on the first meeting.” In one recent case, a man went to DCM for support, “and his rhetoric was that he didn’t want to be housed. He was quite retiring; you had to use a lot of care and respect to engage with him. And then the point was reached that he was ready. Now he is housed in a council flat, and looks years younger. He’s functioning, incredibly happy, his flat is just impeccable.”
Even if homelessness can be tackled, is that our responsibility as a society? Will we be better off as a result? Absolutely, says Wellington night shelter’s Mike Leon.
“If you look after the least in society, then you strengthen society overall. We do have a duty of care to look out for one another on an individual level, whether they are friends and family or strangers on the street.”
There is also, he says, an economic argument. If fewer people were homeless, “there might be less strain on health services, particularly at the more acute end…you could save a lot of money in the long term.”
Health experts back that up: Wellington Hospital emergency doctor Paul Quigley told the Dominion Post that eight homeless men made up three-quarters of all the hospital’s admissions for alcoholism. One man had been admitted to intensive care three times in a year, costing the hospital at least $5000 each time. International research suggests that homeless patients cost US$2500 more than the average patient for each hospital stay, owing to their underlying physical and mental health issues. Many local frontline workers also cite an article by American author Malcolm Gladwell, entitled ‘Million-Dollar Murray’, about Murray Barr, a well-known homeless man in Reno, Nevada. In the article, Gladwell quotes local police officers who estimate that, if one totted up all of Barr’s hospital bills for the 10 years that he had been on the streets—and his substance-abuse treatment costs, doctors’ fees and other expenses—it probably cost the authorities “one million dollars not to do something about Murray”. Flude also points to “the wasted potential of people” caused by homelessness. “Even if they are never going to be working again, there are things they can be doing that are more productive, that give them satisfaction.”
So will homelessness ever be eradicated? “I think it’s possible,” Groot says. “You’re never going to end poverty per se, if we think about that as the bigger picture, but there is the potential that if we do find people in that situation, we can adequately support them, and they don’t end up on the streets.”