How most sleepy hobbits in muddle Nu Zilind who watch Seven Sharp or The Project think WINZ works
I’m a single woman in her 40’s living alone in a council owned apartment in Wellington. I’m also an undergraduate student, mother of one grown up child, an active member of a nearby community centre, and I absolutely refuse to let the fact I am poor, unemployed and living with a disability, define who I am as a person. Being a beneficiary doesn’t mean I don’t still have dreams and a goal of eventually being able to support myself again. I’m never thrilled at the prospect of needing to book an appointment at my local WINZ office. In fact the only time I ever feel like a second rate citizen in my own country is when I’m forced to leave my dignity at the door of WINZ, and join the queue to plead my case for whatever meagre assistance I may be entitled to. Today was one of those days.
I’m always punctual, but as per usual I wait and wait and wait to be seen. I wait for a good half an hour knowing the parking metre will run out before my name is called. It’s after 4pm. My appointment was 3.30pm. It’s remarkably quiet with only three others waiting in the waiting area. The receptionist informs me they’re short on staff. I’ve heard that one before; staff shortages are obviously a regular occurrence at this particular busy city office. I notice a young Maori woman whose been standing near the reception area since I arrived. She has three lively boisterous pre-schoolers who run about noisily, climbing on chairs and playing with computers. Another child joins them in a raucous game of hide and seek until an official looking woman (who I later learn was the service centre manager) comes over and warns the woman to “control your children please”. They all move to the waiting area and sit quietly. But the little fair haired boy, whose father she did not caution, continues to run amok.
The mother of the three boys is finally called over by the service centre manager. I overhear a conversation about emergency accommodation. The manager tersely tells her that all emergency accommodation in the city is full. WINZ cannot (or will not) help her. She’s visibly upset and leaves. I decide I need to put more money in the parking metre and tell reception that’s what I’m doing. Outside I notice the mother of three is parked right in front of me. I tap on her window. She opens the driver’s door and I say that I overheard the conversation inside and wanted to know if she was okay. She shakes her head no. I ask her if she has anywhere at all to stay. She shakes her head no. She says she doesn’t know anyone in Wellington. She explains that her and her children are in transit, they’re relocating from the North Island to the South. She was supposed to get the Cook Straight ferry but due to the icy winter blast and atrocious weather conditions, all Cook Straight crossings are cancelled for the next two days. Her only option is to spend the next three nights in her car. She has nowhere to go and wipes tears off her face. I ask her name. I tell her to stay where she is, and that I’m going back inside to speak to the manager on her behalf.
I make sure that everyone in the waiting area can hear me when I say in a clear voice to the receptionist that the woman and her three children, who were just sent away, will be sleeping in their car out in the freezing cold tonight. I ask to speak to the manager. The receptionist looks unimpressed and informs me there’s no way in hell she’ll be discussing another client’s situation with me and, besides, I need to come with her because a case manager was now ready to see to me. My needs seem to suddenly pale in comparison. “Actually, I’m more concerned about another client and the unsatisfactory non-existent assistance she’s just received, than I am for myself”, I say when my case manager asks how she can help me today. She takes my paperwork, processes it, and agrees to relay my concerns to the service centre manager. I then sit and watch as the same cold, bereft of all compassion, well-to-do desensitized woman in charge is told that someone who just overheard her decision at reception wants to challenge it. Both women make a beeline to the cubicle where I’m sitting.
To my complete astonishment all of a sudden it appears to be perfectly acceptable to be ‘discussing another client’s situation’ with me. The service centre manager goes to great lengths to impress upon me that there was ‘more to the story’ explaining that Storm (not her real name) was supposed to make an appointment to apply for emergency accommodation assistance ‘accompanied by a plan’. Who on earth has ‘a plan’ in the midst of an emergency? She also adds that her office has been inundated with emergency accommodation requests all day and only outer areas of Wellington would have vacancies left. It’s now 4.30pm. Only half an hour left till closing time. But incredibly the manager backs down and agrees to help Storm.
She can’t believe her luck, and neither can I. I offer to stay and sit with her as a support person. But before we are even seated in front of yet another case manager, a phone call to a Holiday Park to make the booking for a self-contained family unit for the next three nights has already been made. Full costs are to be paid immediately into Storm’s bank account. The service centre manager is now a completely different person from the one who turfed her out twenty minutes earlier. Almost bending over backwards to be both friendly and obliging the manager is as nice as pie, and even tells someone to print Storm out a map for directions to her new temporary home. Storm’s so relieved she bear hugs me and I wish her all the best. Walking past the security guards manning the door (whose beady eyes have been on me the entire time) they smile and give me the thumbs up.
For what though? Opening your mouth because you can’t stomach the thought that a single mum and her kids are facing the miserable reality of sleeping rough during the coldest snap all winter shouldn’t be a difficult thing for anyone to do. One beneficiary advocating on behalf of another beneficiary, because they’re aghast at seeing a fellow human being given a raw and rotten deal, ought to be a no brainer. Especially when you already know from personal experience how it feels to be given the cold shoulder and massive run-around by such a mean spirited and punitive organisation – one that possesses zero empathy or compassion for people with individual and complex needs. This service centre manager clearly did not do her job, and her initial decision was wrong. The sudden about face, when questioned, spoke volumes.
But I guess when the government appointed a social development minister in 2008, who then singlehandedly made it her number one mission for six years to turn beneficiary bashing into a national pastime (despite the fact she was once one herself), the mentality and the culture within WINZ is hardly surprising. How many people simply forgo their entitlements in order to avoid the humiliation and stigmatisation of dealing with WINZ? How many people like Storm, who are sent away with nothing, not even given a chance to fully explain their situation, choose to avoid applying for WINZ help the next time they’re in strife because of their previous bad experience?
When working families now don’t earn enough to make ends meet, either, and are also forced to jump through hoops for WINZ handouts in order to survive, it’s time people solely reliant on benefits stop feeling like underclass citizens. Because any one of us, for a myriad of reasons, could lose a job, experience a relationship breakdown, suffer an unexpected debilitating health problem, and wind up having to fill out WINZ application forms. I’ve never met anyone who chose the benefit as a lifestyle choice. And that includes beneficiaries with mental health and addiction problems who sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as well. Don’t ever point the finger or cast judgement if you’ve never walked a day in their shoes or listened to their stories. Take the time to listen and you will hear about desperation, tragedy, and unbelievable hardships that will shock you to your core, positively break your heart, and even inspire you to soften your stance.
Do not listen to the self-serving politicians who use us all as political footballs come election time to score brownie points and ultimately votes. National’s data-driven social welfare policies currently reduces people on welfare to numbers, and Labour also stands accused of their share of questionable and unfair policy practices that have done zip to alleviate unimaginable suffering among long term beneficiaries. Two sides of the same coin, both parties have perpetuated the current vicious cycle of poverty and inequality that puts the entire country to shame. Neither party have a proven record of solutions that involve a shred of humanity. Beneficiaries have been for far too long lumped into one large group, tarred with the same brush of being no hopers, useless parents, nothing but bludgers who misspend tax payers’ money. Nothing could be further than the truth. That’s not my experience or the actuality of beneficiaries I know. Parents on welfare want the best for their kids too, and do strive to do all they can with what little they have. The lies and long held myths about who we are must stop!
I write this as a beneficiary to other beneficiaries to ask that next time you’re sitting waiting to have your needs assessed at your local WINZ office please keep your ears and eyes open to others around you. If you hear something that sounds a bit off or you witness someone being turned away, without first sitting down with a case manager, please take notice. If you see someone looking distressed or upset at being unfairly treated, there is nothing to stop you quietly approaching and asking one simple question – Are You OK? There is nothing to stop beneficiaries from engaging with each other in what can be an intimidating environment, where having to plead your case can be scary and mean the difference between just getting by that week, or going without even more than usual. Never ever underestimate the stress and anxiety that goes hand in hand with constantly not having enough to live on. Poverty is a killer. It destroys people not just physically, but mentally as well.
We’re afforded such little privacy upon presenting ourselves to the office of WINZ that overhearing things we shouldn’t is a routine and common occurrence. We’re all basically heaped in the same impersonal boat together (they make jolly sure of it) so no harm in offering a fellow beneficiary a friendly smile or just an acknowledging look of understanding, right? If a nod of recognition or sympathetic response from a total stranger is all you actually manage to walk out of that wretched place with then at least, momentarily, one small show of kindness from the number who’s sat next to you may relieve the sting of being slapped in the face and sent on your way with nothing. Because quite frankly, so long as those who work for WINZ manage to dot the i’s and cross the t’s; ensuring all the right boxes have been ticked, then that entire State-operated machine couldn’t give a stuff if you lived or died.
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’
A friend you just haven’t met yet.