Homelessness Inquiry listens in Christchurch

It was both distressing and inspiring listening to people’s stories of coping with poverty, homelessness, housing insecurity, and cold, damp rentals, and their ideas for change at the Christchurch hearing day for the joint Green, Labour, and Maori Party inquiry into homelessness.

As the Rev Sheena Dickson said “We need to dispel the myth that homelessness is a result of some personal failing or one single event. The causes are structural – they include poverty and inequality, a lack of adequate housing, the closure of long stay psychiatric institutions, and the short sighted selling of state houses.”

“We need a policy to address homelessness that is more strategic and more preventative, which provides more emergency accommodation, more ‘move-on’ accommodation where people can stay for a while, more social housing, and more street outreach so providers know what people need.”

Trina Nesbitt is forced to live in a caravan with her two children
Trina Nesbitt is forced to live in a caravan with her two children. Credit: The Press

Chris Chamberlain, Senior Minister at the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, called for a change in the quality of political leadership: “On housing, that most basic of human rights, if those in power do not have compassion then they do not have what it takes to lead … When it is getting hard, when the wheels are falling off, and when our vulnerable are hitting 40,000 in number in God’s Own Country, where is the compassion?”  He said one or two people who were homeless regularly slept on the Church property.

Annette Sutherland, of social housing provider Comcare Trust, outlined the many different circumstances of people who are homeless and the awful choices a shortage of emergency housing creates.  She described having to decide whether an eight month pregnant woman, a young man who had been sleeping in a car, or an older man who had been assaulted sleeping in Hagley Park, had first call on the one available emergency flat.

Several submitters described the major shortage of single person accommodation in Christchurch with the loss of 300 beds in one and two bedroom units, and boarding house rooms, east of the CBD after the earthquakes. Under-insured building owners have been unable to afford to repair these large, old and now boarded up houses. This has left many single people, particularly vulnerable young people, with nowhere to go.

Christchurch Methodist Mission Executive Director Jill Hawkey said a range of housing options for young people struggling with homelessness was needed: “Significant investment is required, first to purchase appropriate housing which can be run by community housing providers and second, to provide the social support that these young people need and deserve … We need to be taking action now so that 15-17 year olds exiting out of Child, Youth and Family care or from difficult home lives get every opportunity to make a positive contribution to our community in the years ahead.”

Dr Sue Bagshaw of the 298 Kowhai Youth Wellbeing Trust had a similar message, saying “We need more affordable flats to rent. If the market were working they would be being built but landlords don’t want to build low cost rentals; so they aren’t.”  The Trust is working with St Luke’s Church on a housing project but more options for youth are needed.

Dr Sue Bradshaw of the 298 Kowhai Youth Wellbeing Trust speaks at the Homelessness Inquiry in Christchurch
Dr Sue Bradshaw of the 298 Kowhai Youth Wellbeing Trust speaks at the Homelessness Inquiry in Christchurch. Credit: Green Party

In an inspiring submission, St Thomas College students Alex and William McCorkindale described the impacts of “invisible homelessness” on fellow students who were couch surfing and living in overcrowded houses. “People don’t want to be wealthy money marketeers. They just want the chance to live ordinary lives. To do that they need to be able to buy food, clothing and somewhere to live.”

Di Harwood of the Tenants’ Protection Association (TPA) said weak tenancy law meant that tenants were often scared of asking landlords to fix something for fear of being evicted.  A large part of the TPA’s work was acting as an advocate to landlords and government agencies to stabilise the tenancy situation for vulnerable people and prevent them being evicted and being made homeless.

The poor standard of New Zealand housing was raised repeatedly. People spoke of struggling with damp, cold and mouldy houses and high wintertime heating costs. Scottish immigrant John O’Dowd said he could not believe his first rental in Christchurch: “I hadn’t seen condensation like this since the slum houses in Glasgow in the 1970s. Kiwis don’t complain enough. They have sucked it up for too long.  In New Zealand we seem to have ‘acceptable homelessness’. It’s not acceptable to have families living in cars, garages, and tents.”

Suggestions for change included: changing tenancy law to provide for more secure and long term rental tenure; ensuring that the Government only paid the accommodation supplement to tenants where landlords met designated conditions such as a two to three year leases and warrant of fitness standards; a major state house building programme; low interest loan funding for social housing providers; Council planning policies which avoided urban renewal displacing affordable housing, and which required a percentage of new housing to be affordable housing; encouraging social service providers work together in hubs; and more drop-in facilities where homeless people can shower and wash.

As Brendon Harre, one of the last submitters of the day, said, “There are plenty of options for tackling homelessness. It is a lack of political will which is the issue, not a lack of options.”

Thank you to St John of God, Waipuna, for making their premises available and everyone who took the time to speak to the cross-party inquiry.

The Homelessness Inquiry’s last stop is at Parliament, Wellington, on Monday 5 September.