Ending homelessness (again)

25356158339_3a3ee74a1e_kHomelessness is a disgrace. It’s ugly and dehumanising and I can’t bear to see it every day in my home town of Wellington. Unlike Sir Robert Jones, though, I’ve never thought about blaming the victims for their situation. That’s bully talk and Sir Robert should both be above that and also willing to look deeper for solutions.

Homelessness is never a simple choice like Sir Robert seems to think. When you are poor and homes are unaffordable, you have way fewer choices in life. Most people would never choose to sleep rough on our streets.

And it wasn’t very long ago when there weren’t beggars on Wellington’s street.

When I left New Zealand in 1997 there were only a few people sleeping rough in Wellington. Everyone seemed to know who they were. Arriving in London, one of the richest cities in the world, there were vagrants and beggars everywhere, sleeping rough under bridges, in parks, in any nook that offered a little shelter from the wind and rain. I loved that I came from a country that was better than this — one that didn’t let people get that desperate. Or so I thought.

The New Zealand I returned to in 2010 was a very different place to the one I’d left. Homelessness is now a highly visible phenomena here as well. We have people sleeping in cars and kids are now getting diseases we thought we’d gotten rid of forever.

This was an even bigger shock to me. I’d been completely naïve to think that New Zealand was immune from the same devastating consequences of the same government policies that have led to rising inequality, the roll-back of the welfare state, and fueled a property market that had made homes completely unaffordable.

Things were not bright when I left New Zealand in the 1990s. National’s Mother of all Budgets in 1991 had taken a giant slice out of government spending on health, education and welfare support. Unemployment was high and inequality had begun its meteoric rise.

Compared to today however, there were a million fewer people living here, but 4,600 more state houses then than now. Homes were much more affordable. The median house price in Auckland was just $200,000 in 1995 compared to today’s median price of $840,000.

Sure, poor people make bad decisions – but so do we all. I’ve made plenty myself. But the negative consequences of bad decisions are always more damaging when you start out poor. And today, they’re more damaging than ever before. You’re more likely to become homeless under National.

This National Government has had nine years to make changes to housing, health, and education, to ensure we all have the best chances in life. But they haven’t. They’re still blaming the victims like Sir Robert.

I believe we can end homelessness, however, and I intend to start making real and positive changes in the lives of everyday Kiwis from the moment I step into office as part of a Green-Labour Government.

Sure it will be hard, but here’s two things we can do to address homelessness now and turn around rising levels of inequality in New Zealand:

  1. Direct the new revenues from taxing currently untaxed capital gains on property speculation to fund better health and mental health services, and significantly lift educational outcomes in our schools with new investment in teachers and our state schools.
  1. Leverage the power of the state to build thousands of new, affordable homes. There has never been a more opportune time to address obvious market failure at the affordable end of the housing market. We can help tens of thousands of Kiwis into their first, affordable homes.

This is about giving people a hand up by giving them a stake in our society again — a place to stand and feel secure again — Māori call it tūrangawaewae.

Don’t let natural disgust at the levels of homelessness in New Zealand turn into something malignant. We can fix this. And we can build a truly inclusive society that we can be proud of again.

James Shaw

MP and Green Party Co-leader