Possibly the most vulnerable group in New Zealand right now are the homeless. The worst affected area is Auckland, where hundreds of people are without a permanent place to call home. They’re forced to make life on the streets, sleeping in parks and bus shelters, in shop doorways and under bridges. And the problem is going to get much worse. Already there are 5500 priority A and B people on the waiting list for state housing, while (in its drive to privatise anything that moves) the government is selling off thousands of taxpayer subsidised rentals. They have no mandate to do this. The demand for housing is outstripping supply, and people paying market rents are spending up to two thirds of their weekly income just to have shelter over their heads. It could all be too much for some, who may end up living in cars or on the street. And that’s a disgrace in a country that prides itself as a prosperous, liberal, egalitarian nation of compassion and empathy. It’s a joke, and a bad one at that.
The fact is that society hates the homeless. They’re dirty, disturbed, confronting and the most dreadful thing of all is that they ask for change and cigarettes. They also force us to look at ourselves and wonder if this really is the land of milk and honey, where everybody is treated fairly with respect and dignity. And the truth is this country is developing a disconcertingly hard edge. If international trends are anything to go by the homeless here will be further ostracized, isolated and pushed to the margins. After all they’re not like us. They rip off the benefit system; they steal food out of garbage cans and generally make the place look untidy. But the reality is they’re only trying to survive in a harsh, harsh world where jobs are few and the challenges are many. In the UK, Australia and Canada so called ‘defensive architecture’ is driving the homeless out of once undesirable areas as the corporate led gentrification process continues. Metal spikes have been introduced in doorways, and bus shelter seats have been narrowed to stop people sleeping on them. In America (the richest country in the world), some counties have passed bylaws that stop charitable organisations from feeding the weak, dispossessed and hungry. It’s an outrageous inhumanity that rich countries treat the poor as lepers to ‘modify behaviour’. It has begun here in New Zealand; very subtly bus shelters are being developed to have narrow seats (hardly seats at all). I noticed one the other day in Grafton. Be warned we will follow the rest of the west in implementing these measures and more besides as time goes on. It’s a matter of whether we accept this or not.
The Auckland Council’s Plan seeks to make Auckland the most “liveable” city, not so subtlety suggesting how difficult and expensive it is to live in NZ’s most developed city. The Auckland Council presented the plan with its grandiose ideas of being fair, safe, healthy and culturally diverse, but was resigned to the fact that we cannot have this unless the people in our communities were economically and socially prosperous. The Council also stated that we cannot have this ‘liveable’ city unless we have private businesses on board, the same businesses that show an increasing lack of social conscience in the way they treat our most vulnerable populations. So where does that leave those 5500 people without homes? Well, if the government’s new housing policy of selling off state houses to the private market is any indication it isn’t looking good. In one area the number of state houses has gone from 116 to 20, and the resident’s left without a home are less than optimistic about getting support from Housing NZ. The policy suggests that to put state houses next to privately owned houses encourages residents to “aspire to own their own home”. The only real criticism is that there may not be enough state houses to cater for the demand – I would call this a complete failure in addressing a housing crisis.
Martin Luther King once said “judge a man on the content of his character not on the colour of his skin”. The same could be said about a nation; judge it on its compassion, empathy and the way it treats its weak and vulnerable. Don’t believe the myths that the impoverished are choosing to have no home, don’t believe the poor have no desire to contribute to society and don’t believe that these people have nothing to offer. As a nation we have a social responsibility to build solid affordable housing and raise the standard of living for our increasing homeless population; difficult and expensive I know, but worth it in the long run. As people we have a social responsibility to challenge a society that dismisses and discriminates. And as human beings we must consistently check ourselves, so we aren’t ‘not noticing’ people who may today – simply need a cigarette.
Written by James King