When the glue that holds our society together starts failing

I visited the Whitireia Community Law Centre in Porirua last week and spent an hour with three of their staff and heard about how difficult things are.

They are a drop in service, with no appointments necessary, because so many people come in with urgent needs that need help. They are able to help people from Porirua and Kāpiti regions in urgent need and unable to get appointments elsewhere.

The bulk of their work is family, immigration and then employment issues with what sounded like an increasing amount of work on tenancy and income support issues.

The overwhelming story they told was of a system created, consciously and unconsciously, by Government that has become unworkable for people who need it most. They told me stories of a man coming in with forms and files about 15 cm high to fill in for family court hearings. They talked about how their core philosophy is to support people to be able to do things for themselves but that they found the system so wearying and difficult that they realised it is virtually impossible/too much to expect people without English as a first or strong language/limited literacy/in crisis/experiencing mental health issues/elderly/without trust in the system to manage it.

They talked about how many people don’t have credit on their phones and don’t have the resilience to keep going when they call Housing NZ or Work and Income, wait on the phone for an hour and then talk to someone for two minutes who tells them to call someone else.  I suspect if most of us, without the challenges I listed above, were honest we could imagine ourselves in this scenario, yelling at the phone and giving up.

Despite all the National rhetoric of independence and people helping themselves, and results based outcomes, it’s clear the system is set up in a way to prevent people getting the support essential to be able to help themselves.

They told me about a client/pensioner with mental health challenges who was evicted from his housing NZ property and another woman with PTSD who was also evicted for damage to the Housing NZ property during a psychotic episode. Where is the safety net when the people who are most in need, and unable to exist in the private market, are kicked out of state houses. People do not ‘learn their lessons’ and suddenly become well and reliable because Housing NZ has laid down the law. They just become homeless.

We started a good discussion about privacy, they were conscious of the need to ensure people had the information to know when they should intervene; when children might be at risk. When I raised my concerns about information sharing and shared stories I’ve heard recently of people not getting important medical assistance because they were scared of CYPF intervention. They also shared a story of a woman too scared to go to the doctor when her child was very sick because she thought CYPF would blame her and take her child. This created a major ethical dilemma for the lawyers. A heart-breaking situation for everyone.

And then we have the reality for the people in the community organisations left trying to keep people afloat when the glue fails. The Community Law Centre, and most other community organisations I know of, haven’t had a funding increase in almost a decade. The need for their service has increased. One of these wonderful heroes was embarrassed in our meeting to find herself in tears talking about how the system is failing the elderly and people with mental health problems and they are powerless to fix it.

They were very concerned that the idea of access to justice exists on paper but in reality is fast becoming a privilege for those with time/money/sense of entitlement.

My takeaway from this meeting was confirmation that we need to rebuild our society. Some of us might think that we’re alright but when 20 percent of our country is living in deprivation it’s hard to see how it’s going to end well.