New Zealand was once a pioneer of the social welfare state, but now one in every 100 New Zealanders are homeless.
Auckland, New Zealand – It was a normal day at work for Andrew Allan until his mobile phone rang.
“My eldest daughter called,” he remembers, “and she said a local group of thugs were smashing all of the windows where we lived and breaking everything.”
Allan rushed home to find his partner Melissa and their five children standing on the road after a group of young men he believes belong to a local gang rampaged through the house.
“I’m not sure why they went after us, but they had hit a few of the other houses and families nearby,” he said.
Allan had been renting three rooms at a boarding house in the South Auckland suburb of Papakura for himself and family for US$173 a week for each room. They had only been there for a few months, but after it was attacked, they knew it was time to go.
The landlord gave them an ultimatum: to pay for the damage in three days or leave. “We had no choice,” says Allan. “We couldn’t afford to pay and it wasn’t our fault. We had nowhere else to go, so we had to start sleeping in the car.”
Every night, Allan, his partner and five children would squash into two cars and park on a street in South Auckland and shiver their way through the winter’s night. “It was pretty hard if I’m honest,” he remembers. “We were so cold and there weren’t enough blankets for everyone.”
They weren’t the only ones. “The street was full of parked up cars at night time.”
Every morning, the family would drive to a nearby public toilet where the four teenage kids would wash themselves in the basin before heading off to school. “We had to try and keep our routine as normal as we could for the kids,” Allan says. “I didn’t want them missing out on school.”
Shelters and social services
About three weeks later, Allan heard that Te Puea Memorial Marae, a Maori meeting house in South Auckland, was opening up its doors in response to the growing number of homeless people. He drove his family straight there and asked for help.
“At first I was really shy and they welcomed us in, but they thought we just needed to eat, but I was like, ‘No, we are homeless’,” he recalls.
“We’ve created a new strata of the community that is stuck below the poverty line,” says Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis.
“These are not rough sleepers,” he says. “We have mums and dads, just like you and I, taking kids to school, taking them to kindergarten and all the normal 9am-5pm things. But after 5pm, they go into crisis mode; they can’t afford to pay the rent so they are driving around in their vans looking for a safe place to sleep.”
According to the University of Otago, one in every 100 people in New Zealand is now homeless, and more than half of those are studying or have jobs.
Allan was working as a forklift driver but paying $518 for just three rooms each week stretched him to the limit.
“These parents would’ve otherwise had their own places, these parents would’ve otherwise been mowing their lawns, going to parent-teacher interviews, these would be normal parents,” says Dennis. “And that’s what frightened me the most.”
Since May, Te Puea Marae has taken in and helped 181 people, but providing a warm place to sleep and a feed is only a small slice of the service. “We have the full wrap around treatment,” says Dennis.” The marae has a pop-up office for Work and Income – an employment and financial assistance agency – and talked through the social welfare benefits each family was on before they moved in.
“We found some were on the wrong benefits; some didn’t know they were entitled to others,” says Dennis.
The marae had to be strict with whom it allowed in.
“We wanted to know what their situation was and how hard they had tried to find another place to live, why had they been evicted and so on. We wanted all the background information because if they hadn’t tried every alternative, we couldn’t let them in,” he says.
“We had to keep the space for people who really had nowhere else to go.”
After Te Puea had found homes for families, it gave them a month’s worth of donated groceries, clothes and furnishings for their new home to help them on their way. Once the families are moved in, the marae’s social services team then carries out follow-up assessments where they check up on the families each week and then each month.
“It’s not rocket science”, says Dennis, “but we’ve developed a good social services model and it works.” It works so well, Dennis says, that he and his staff have been asked to speak at the University of Auckland.
He also says that other government agencies which he wouldn’t name started sending people to the marae. “I have to say they were some reputable, mandated and funded agencies dropping people off … we could be nasty about this by naming and shaming them but we’re not going to.”
Allan says that he had tried several times to get on the waiting list for social housing but found the process to be too drawn out and confusing.
“To be honest, Housing New Zealand [HNZ] and Work and Income New Zealand [WINZ] are hopeless. If you go there, you have to wait for ages to get what you want”. But it was a different story at the marae. “Over here, you go and ask once, and they try their best just to get it all done and worked out. They did it.”
Alan Johnson, a Salvation Army Social policy analyst, explains that HNZ “is becoming increasingly belligerent towards tenants and evicting for fairly trivial reasons”, making it difficult for people to get on to benefits is a deliberate policy by the Ministry of Social Development, he says.
“It is certainly the case the Ministry of Social Development staff have actively managed people away from the waiting list and into the crappy so-called emergency housing …” he says.
Since 2014 , the New Zealand government has set an ambitious target to get people off social welfare benefits. It has reduced the number of people relying on main benefits from 321,869 to 286,939, and it wants that number down to 220,451 by 2018.
Once those people are off benefits, however, they are not monitored, so while they could have moved out of the welfare system because they’ve secured a good job, equally they could have slipped off the benefit because they have gone to prison. “This is not a flaw but quite a deliberate omission,” says Johnson.
But Ruth Bound, the Ministry of Social Development chief executive, says the ministry continues to “approve the vast majority of all applications for help,” and administers over $5bn each year in welfare payments and hardship assistance.
She adds that Work and Income New Zealand has “no right, nor mandate to monitor ex-clients once they have moved off the benefit”, and points to new schemes to help guide people stay off welfare.
“New support for sole parents to study and up-skill, as well as recently announced support for recently released prisoners to sustain employment are just two practical examples of how we can remove barriers to work and help people avoid long-term benefit dependency,” Bound told Al Jazeera.
Soaring house prices, no social housing
New Zealand is top of the International Monetary Fund’s list for housing unaffordability. The price of houses has soared with wages failing to keep up. In its quarterly global housing watch report released last week, New Zealand outpaced 30 other of the world’s richest countries, eclipsing Austria, Sweden and Australia.
The average house price in Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city – has now hit $719,405 – equal to a million New Zealand dollars.
Johnson says prices have outpaced the building of new homes.
“The result is now a chronic shortage of modest-sized and modest-priced houses which would normally be rented to low-income working families … but because rents are rising faster than wages, some are being squeezed out of the rental market and on to the streets”, says Johnson.
Social security programmes were implemented in New Zealand in the 1930s, and social welfare has been a cornerstone of society, but the importance of social housing is diminishing.
“The importance of social housing as a share of the housing stock has declined since 1991,” says Johnson. “But in terms of unmet need, I would suggest that social housing is more important than ever.”
Political power play
Three of New Zealand’s opposition parties held a cross-party inquiry to assess the scale of the homeless problem. The Labour Party, Greens and Maori Party travelled around the country taking submissions.
“It’s a state of emergency”, says Labour spokesman Phil Twyford. “We’ve got something like 42 thousand people that are homeless in New Zealand today. That’s just not the New Zealand that we want.”
“The government appears to be taking the political consequences of homelessness seriously but it has only offered token efforts to address the worst edge of the problem,” he says.
Andrew Allan and his family are now living in a home provided by the government in South Auckland. It was Te Puea Memorial Marae that helped them process the paperwork and find a suitable new house to live in. They are happy. “It’s amazing,” says Allan. “The kids especially are really stoked to be here.”
Te Puea Memorial Marae has now housed the last remaining families and isn’t taking any more in. But other marae, such as Manurewa Marae, also in South Auckland, have stepped in and are replicating the Te Puea Marae Model.
Follow Caitlin McGee on Twitter: @MsCaitlinMcGee