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Homelessness cannot be excused

September 4, 2017

In a country as wealthy as New Zealand it is inexcusable to have an 81 year old man working in lieu of rent for a broken down old caravan and nowhere else to live.

The long predicated social calamity of homelessness is now too big to be ignored or fobbed off with vague promises of new housing or blaming the poor for their poverty.

Most cities have people living rough on the streets or under bridges and many, like Nelson, have a semi-permanent subculture of families sleeping in cars and vans in supermarket car parks every night and driving off for the day.

In the absence of a workable nationwide approach to the problem most local authorities have no option but to tolerate their homeless citizens and provide basic public ablution facilities for them.

The Matamata-Piako District Council however has taken a different approach with 81 year-old Wayne Brassington who has lived in a broken down caravan in camping ground at the Waharoa Aerodrome for the past eight years. In an informal arrangement he had been working as a part time caretaker in exchange for rent until the camping round was closed in March. The council has recently asked Brassington to move out but he has nowhere to go and no family in New Zealand. The caravan probably cannot be moved and none of the places he tried has room for him. Faced with that dilemma the council has put him on their Elderly Persons Housing waiting list and is working with WINZ to find him emergency accommodation in the meantime. They have also issued him with an eviction notice which seems at odds with their commendable efforts to find accommodation for him. Throwing him out onto the street is not an ethical option and we already have too many people in that situation. 

His personal circumstances, and there is much uninformed speculation about that, and how he ended up in that situation are relatively unimportant as there should be places for such people to live out their twilight years in dignity and comfort.

Homelessness, at least in New Zealand, is the result of much more than a shortage of affordable housing and unregulated real estate speculation.

The main driver for this shameful situation is our low wage, international market driven, economy which had its genesis in the adoption of the neo-liberalism experiment and the destruction of effective trade unions about thirty years ago.

We even have employers claiming, with a straight face, that they cannot afford to pay the minimum living wage without going broke. That same spurious argument was offered in the 1830s when William Wilberforce was battling slavery. It is a ridiculous now as it was then. Any business which relies for financial survival on an underpaid work force is not a viable enterprise.

Sadly those in the best position to address the problem of homelessness are either in denial about the issue or so removed from the reality of poverty that they have no concept of what it is like to go without.

That was clearly demonstrated last week when Prime Minister Bill English glibly announced that homelessness has almost been eliminated in Hamilton without any evidence to support the claim. He was quickly corrected by those who provide emergency shelter for street dwellers. 

Hamilton Christian Night Shelter manager Peter Humphreys said the actual number of homeless people in the city has never been known. The shelter, which doesn’t receive central government funding, has 25 beds for men and nine for women.

The men’s beds have been at full capacity in the past three months, and people have been turned away.

Catherine Hodges, director of Hamilton’s Methodist City Action, also refuted the idea  that homelessness was almost resolved.

The government spent $12.6 million on emergency accommodation grants for seven-day motel stays in the three months to July 2017. That is not a figurative ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, that is a hearse.  

We have far too many people living unhealthy garages, sheds and, like Wayne Brassington, in broken down old caravans. We have in our major cities, the most unaffordable houses in the Western World and prices well beyond the reach of most young families throughout the rest of the country.

This situation did not arise overnight. Politicians of all colours have known this was coming for years. We don’t need a Brexit but we do need to re-empower wage and salary earners to re-claim their rightful share of New Zealand’s collective wealth.