Discussions of homelessness with the people who are usually asked last
Homelessness in Auckland is in an appalling state. Most of us, on our walk to and from uni, are reminded of the issue daily. Perhaps the scene is so normal you don’t even glance in their direction. Or perhaps you offer an empathetic smile or some spare change. These are common reactions that we all have. When I first moved to Auckland three years ago, I was shocked by the scale of the problem. Yet I’ve been told by friends on numerous occasions, “don’t give them your money, they’ll just spend it on drugs.” It’s a common sentiment that illuminates a deep-rooted social stigma; one that has embedded itself in a political disinterest in addressing the real causes of homelessness.
Whilst it is sufficient for this article that homelessness is an issue which deserves public attention, my foremost inspiration for writing this piece was my interactions with a homeless man named Jack who sits by my local Countdown. When I sat with him to hear his story, his eyes brimmed with tears. “I first came out here when I was nine years old”, he begins, and what follows is a story of how an unjust and insensitive system has, in countless ways, prevented him from improving his position in life.
Among Auckland CBD’s mounting list of problems which politicians ferociously campaign against is the “shocking” crime rates. In these crusades for “safer Auckland streets”, the houseless community is often cast as offenders against the public, rather than victims themselves. Jack tells me of the violence he’s experienced—he’s been assaulted and has witnessed his friends be assaulted by strangers multiple times. “I’ve seen so many of my brothers and sisters die out here on the streets, it’s not nice. But life goes on”.
Safety is perhaps the most paramount issue for rough sleepers in Auckland who, unless they can secure one of limited emergency or transitional housing spaces (such as those offered by HousingFirst and Auckland City Mission’s HomeGround), are left to fend for themselves against the dangers of the streets. Whilst there are support services offered during the day-time, the closing of Auckland’s only night shelter back in 2012 has left many with no alternative.
To understand the ongoing struggle for Auckland’s houseless, I spoke to Michelle Kidd. She is better known as Whaea Michelle, who, for the past 25 years, has been serving the unhoused community, including supporting houseless defendants in court and tirelessly campaigning for a new night shelter. She too has witnessed what a lack of safety means for the unhoused, including barbaric assaults and lives lost. But her campaign for the night shelter has been blocked repeatedly by political representatives. Michelle says that she and other advocates for the houseless have faced “every barrier imaginable”.
The process has made Michelle particularly bitter towards the politicians who are supposed to be the ones addressing the issue. Michelle firmly believes that “politicians will not solve this problem”, following her own experience directly calling politicians such as Jacinda Ardern to action, to no avail.
Aside from calling on political leadership, the general consensus of those I spoke to was that the most valuable results are achieved by volunteers; however, these individuals just simply aren’t supported. The safety net for Auckland’s rough sleepers for at least the last decade has been, for the most part, weaved together by community-based action and grassroots networks worn thin by an under-supply of government resources, time, money, or interest.
Whilst their effort clearly hasn’t made a noticeable impact within Auckland’s CBD, the government’s aim to ‘prevent and reduce homelessness’ manifests itself in the Homelessness Action Plan. The plan acknowledges that the inaccessibility of social services, resources, and support for the unhoused are necessary to reduce homelessness.
Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Greens Party and Associate Minister for Housing, who I spoke to about the government’s homelessness response, believes this plan is “a good start”; however, she urges that more work needs to be done. Davidson highlighted the need for ‘wrap-around support’ including “More mental health support in [New-Zealand’s] homelessness and emergency housing response.”
COVID-19 has had adverse effects on many of the homelessness initiatives. At the beginning of the pandemic, the New-Zealand government made headlines for managing to place all rough sleepers in emergency housing. However, since then, the houseless have returned to the streets, seemingly in larger numbers than before.* During my conversation with Jack, another unhoused man remarked, “Covid showed them what they could’ve done ages ago, because all of a sudden emergency housing was available like that, there was no reason to be homeless… Covid was kind of like a catalyst.” Even though emergency housing provided some relief to the unhoused during the height of the pandemic, Davidson stresses that “emergency housing is not a long-term solution”. Many houseless individuals who struggle with severe mental illness, such as PTSD, find crowded, temporary housing options unsuitable and dehumanising, one proclaiming he’d “rather live on the streets”, where there is a community of people who actually care about each other.
Institutional racism is another major factor that exacerbates the struggles of unhoused Māori, who are overrepresented in the houseless population country-wide. One man reported that racial prejudice has compounded the level of difficulty of interacting with governmental support services for him and his peers.
Another important factor in addressing homelessness effectively and equitably is public perception of the issue. On a positive note, Marama Davidson feels that the narrative surrounding homelessness is slowly changing. As the cost of living becomes one of the leading issues affecting all New Zealanders, Davidson hopes that the general public will assume less often that unhoused people themselves are ‘to blame’ for their own situation. She particularly emphasised the importance of supporting young people experiencing homelessness, who are faced with adverse challenges. When the public does not victim-blame, the government is more likely to address the system-level problems that lead to homelessness.
In support of such changes, Whaea Michelle believes the stigma surrounding homelessness is deeply unfair. Looking around her office at the photos of her many unhoused friends, Whaea Michelle told me, “Homeless people have within them a depth of spirit that I find rarely in others… they gift you a love that they don’t expect to receive anything from.” Her plea to the public was to “get to know them… that’s why we were given two ears and one mouth, to sit and listen with people.”
When I asked Jack how the public could support him, his earnest response was: “I don’t want your money. I don’t care about your money. Just talk to me; have a conversation. That’s the kind of thing that makes my day.” He said, “We might be sitting on the ground, but we have the most beautiful hearts. People don’t realise that.” I think these people deserve our generosity the absolute most. As conscious social actors, it’s vital that we support unhoused communities however we can. Have a conversation, donate money or food, volunteer your time. It is worth it. And it will go a long way in restoring a sense of community in Auckland, one that has been lost in the struggle to reunite human beings with their basic human rights.
*this is an eyewitness observation only as statistics on homelessness are out of date.