I’ve just finished nearly two weeks doing the EU visitors programme based around climate change, environment and energy policy. I’ll blog more about that in the New Year once I’ve had time to go through all the material but needless to say it was a fascinating visit and New Zealand is certainly on Europe’s radar, which represents both opportunities and risks.
I’ve been to Brussels once before about seven years ago. What struck me on this visit is the dramatic extent to which homelessness has visibly increased – perhaps not surprising given the difficult financial times. As we all head off to spend Christmas with friends and family it’s important we don’t forget those who are struggling, who aren’t able to provide the basics let alone gifts for the kids, and the wonderful people who work through the holiday period to support them and make what can be a very difficult time a little bit easier.
Homelessness is also an increasing problem in New Zealand. It is estimated that one in 20 New Zealanders is sleeping in temporary accommodation, on a relative or friend’s couch or lounge floor, in a garage or car, or in some other ‘unfit’ accommodation. A quarter of these are children. And yet at the same time homelessness remains one of our most misunderstood issues.
Despite efforts to raise awareness by the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness and those who work at the coal face running shelters, supported accommodation and social services, the prevailing view still seems to be that homelessness is largely a choice, and that in a country with a comprehensive social security and state housing system no one should be homeless. And on one level I can understand that thinking. But it’s not that simple.
To access income support in New Zealand you need a physical address and a bank account. To get a bank account you need a physical address. To vote you need a physical address. Labour has always understood that a house is so much more than just a roof over the head. So much of our ability to participate in and engage with society is reliant on the assumption that in Godzone every Kiwi will be adequately housed. When we fall short of this goal the social implications can be immense. And social housing is hugely over-subscribed so if you are a single male your chances of accessing a Housing New Zealand property are very low.
It’s easy to dismiss homeless people – especially the visibly homeless on the streets – as a public nuisance, visual eyesore, or having chosen their own circumstances. The video below is American but accurately echoes the comments of Kiwis who are current or formerly homeless that I have met through amazing groups like Lifewise in Auckland. It’s well worth a watch.
There are a few relatively simple things government could do right now- for a start they could stick to their own definition of homelessness and ensure that no government policy has the effect of increasing homelessness. There is also no single agency responsible for dealing with homelessness or emergency accommodation – a major issue given that there is very little if any emergency provision outside of the main centres. They could return Housing New Zealand to it’s rightful role as a social housing provider (reversing the decision to stop our social housing provider considering a tenants “wider social needs”), and they could free up the thousands of state houses that are sitting vacant for tenanting.
Labour is committed to working with the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness, and across Parliament, to achieve the goals of housing every Kiwi by 2020 and ending homelessness in New Zealand.
A very Merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year to all.