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Busting the myths of homelessness

Peter Burke, a success story of DCM.

With Wellington on the brink of a housing crisis like that of Auckland, local charity DCM helps around 1000 people a year find and stay in housing, while also offering everything from dental and health clinics to a banking service. Wellington mayor Justin Lester and DCM director Stephanie McIntyre bust open some common misconceptions around homelessness and what’s needed to end it.

Sarah Lang: Some people think homelessness is a choice. What would you say to a man I overheard on the bus, who said “They’re living off the benefit, spend it on drugs, piss and cigarettes, and if they don’t want to work, they can live and die by that?”

Justin Lester: That’s utter ignorance. When I visited a school in Tawa, a girl talked to me about needing to get into social housing because she was living in a tent. What does that do to a young person's confidence? Growing up in Invercargill, I was fortunate to live in a state house, otherwise life would have looked very different. After I left home, Mum moved to Christchurch and had to shift between private rentals every year when rents rose. She was right on the cusp of the definition of homelessness. She’s now 71 and finally has housing security because we’ve bought her a house.

You know, there are two common misconceptions around homelessness. One is “I had a hard life, but I pulled myself out of it.” I agree, you likely did work hard, but in many cases that comes down to an opportunity you were given. Then there’s the misconception that people make decisions and have to bear the consequences. But what if they experienced abuse, violence or mental health issues? All it takes is one thing to go wrong – maybe the car breaks down, maybe your rent is late and you get kicked out. Or, in my mum’s situation, your partner leaves and doesn't pay child support. Things happen, and there’s often nowhere to turn.

By definition, homelessness includes people without housing security, such as those staying night by night at a shelter, backpackers, motel, boarding house or campground, or people staying with extended family or friends in crowded houses. But is there still a misconception that homelessness only refers to rough sleepers? 

Stephanie McIntyre: Yes. Statistics New Zealand, the Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand came up with that definition of homelessness in 2009, including categories from rough sleeping to people in temporary housing and overcrowded houses. But rough sleeping and homelessness get used as synonymous terms, and that misconception is driven by different agendas. Sometimes politicians prefer the scale of homelessness to look smaller.

Alarmingly, Paula Bennett barefacedly said on the TV show The Nation that most New Zealanders know homelessness is just rough sleeping. That’s disingenuous because it contradicts the government’s own definition. The misconception is also driven by the media when they don't understand the definition. But some media are more constructive. For example, John Campbell’s Checkpoint shows have helped people understand the complexity of homelessness.

Has homelessness also been conflated with begging?

Stephanie: It’s all got muddled up, and begging has driven a lot of negative public perception. The thousand people who come through DCM’s doors every year have very different stories. One man has a council flat, a Jobseeker benefit and is looking for work. But when he’s paid rent, power, deductions for fines and benefit advances, he has $52 a week. I know that because he banks with us through our money-management programme. That $52 has to feed him, pay for his transport, phone, doctor’s bills and clothes, leaving nothing to have a life. I've seen him begging on Saturday nights. Because what else can he do? He’s on the cusp of mental health issues, with a back story of trauma, and disconnection from his whānau. We’re so lucky to have council housing in Wellington, but it’s becoming unaffordable at the most severe end of the spectrum, even though the council charges discounted rates.

What do you think of the Cross-Party Homelessness Inquiry’s report of 20 steps? 

Stephanie: There are some good ideas, but the biggest problem is the current government wasn’t involved and is still reluctant to even say we have a housing crisis. They’re clinging to the notion that the market will provide. It’s a deplorable situation.

What is the council doing to address homelessness?

Justin: Housing is council’s number-one priority, without a doubt. The Wellington Summit in November canvassed Wellingtonians’ views on all sorts of issues, and kept coming back to housing.

I was at a comedy show recently when a comedian asked what are Wellington’s major issues and people shouted out “housing!” The Mayor’s Taskforce on Housing, which is looking at what actions to take, includes representatives from groups ranging from DCM, iwi and community-housing trusts to property developers and the construction industry. Everything is on the table. The crux is how to increase the supply of homes because the market simply isn’t responding to the need. No private company is prepared to build for the public good because they’re trying to maximise profits. But who should deliver?

We have this great crowdfunding system called tax, and rates. So [central and local] government needs to take responsibility, and it’s reprioritising how that money is spent. Wellington City Council has 2400 social-housing units, but it’s not enough. We’ll build 750 social and affordable homes over the next three to five years. We’re looking at partnering with third parties to build affordable private homes next to our social housing, or we’ll just build affordable housing ourselves. We’re also looking at establishing a residential facility for rough sleepers with addiction issues to moderate their drug or alcohol intake.

Should people give street beggars money or not?

Stephanie: As begging has become more normalised, so has rough sleeping. It’s become more socially acceptable to be on the pavement with your possessions. People are well-motivated but giving to street beggars is a very blunt mechanism. We have young men now who don't really engage with agencies like us, and that’s not helping anyone. But stop and say “Hello. Do you know DCM or the soup kitchen?”

Justin: There are a lot of rough sleepers around the council precinct. I do stop to talk. “Do you know DCM? Have you talked to our local hosts? They’re city ambassadors who assist the public and visitors on the street.” The number of beggars in Wellington ranges between 40 and 60, and we know their names and stories – and we’ve had one-on-one conversations about support – but we just don't have the homes.

What’s happening with Te Mahana: Ending Homelessness in Wellington Strategy 2014–2020?

Justin: It’s brought the partner agencies together and is working well but it’s unlikely it will achieve its target of ending homelessness in Wellington by 2020 if we don’t have sufficient accommodation to put people into. That’s why I’m committed to a Housing First approach at WCC.

Stephanie: When accommodation gets more scarce, people at the severe end get bumped. People displaced from hostels and boarding houses become rough sleepers. Many people we see have experienced long-term entrenched homelessness that may go right back to childhood. Most of the social services funding is for agencies working with children or families, which is great preventative work, but what about the adults who may be alcohol or drug dependent, have mental health issues, be carrying trauma, have no qualifications, have spent time in prison? That’s the profile of most people who come through our doors. The numbers of people coming to DCM who are homeless has increased by 35 percent over the last five years. Even more concerning, the numbers of people who are rough sleeping has doubled.

Justin: DCM gets by with very little funding and is doing outstanding work. The people here in the foyer today are in desperate need. What’s the benefit of getting these people housed to the community and the city? Our ideal vision is a city where everyone has a home.

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